9 December 2021

Scientists identify two new embryo selection biomarkers to help reduce time to pregnancy

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Melbourne IVF

For the first-time two biological markers, to improve embryo selection and may help IVF patients to get pregnant sooner, have been identified by Virtus Health scientists, led by world-renown embryologist Distinguished Professor David Gardner (FAA).

“The potential for the new biomarkers research is significant. We’ve discovered another way to identify embryos that will lead to the healthiest pregnancy in the shortest possible time,” said Professor Gardner, Virtus Health’s Group Director of ART, Scientific Innovation & Research.

Professor Gardner explains the term biomarker: “It’s a widely used medical word, meaning medical sign or biological marker, such as cancer biomarkers. But there isn’t really a biomarker of embryo development or viability, that’s why this research is so ground-breaking. 

“Current embryo selection is based on assessing visual changes of the embryo dividing and reaching key developmental milestones, using time-lapse video vision over five days of the incubation period. 

“This new research found slow dividing embryos, which are associated with higher implantation failure, have differences in aspartate and glucose uptake. Analysing the aspartate and glucose consumption rates can represent biomarkers of embryo development and may therefore improve embryo selection efficacy and pregnancy rates.

“Many research projects have tried to look for an elusive biomarker, molecules that can indicate embryo health, like a protein or a peptide, something that the embryo produces as a signalling marker. To date, no research has come up with anything that is conclusive or shown to be prospectively useful,” said Professor Gardner.

Professor Gardner has been researching metabolic embryo health since the 1980s when he first started researching embryo glucose consumption. 

“The metabolic health, and the numerous biochemical and physiological changes that the embryo undergoes, is probably one of the best biomarkers that we have.

“Research has since shown that glucose is a good biomarker of human embryo health, but this new landmark study is the first-of-its-kind internationally to combine two biomarkers for embryo selection: glucose and the amino acid aspartate, which makes it so unique.

“I’m delighted the study, co-written by Dr Lisa Lee, Lab Manager at Melbourne IVF has been published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics. 

“We now plan to develop this research and apply it clinically into IVF laboratory technology. The challenge is applying this very complicated biochemistry concept, where we’ve used very expensive metabolomic screens, to translate this to a benchtop laboratory apparatus.

Dr Lisa Lee, Lab Manager at Melbourne IVF explains: “We have created a specific and accurate assay for the amino acid aspartate, it’s a real time assay which we can run in our own laboratory and it’s the first time a study has reported on this type of assay. 

Professor Gardner said this breakthrough biomarker research is also capable of predicting what will happen post embryo implantation. 

“We found embryos that divide faster not only have differences in aspartate and glucose uptake, but they also have differences in gene expression. We measured gene expression and we saw that genes associated with the metabolism of both glucose and aspartate were also different in the placenta which means the biomarkers also have health implications for developmental programming post-implantation.

“In a few years we will be better able to identify the embryo that will lead to the healthiest pregnancy and child in the shortest possible time.

“The research has the very real potential to reduce time to pregnancy, to give patients the best chance of getting pregnant the first time, helping to eliminate patient stress. We hope in the very near future these biomarkers can be used in combination with artificial intelligence embryo selection.

Professor Gardner explains that this study is part of an entirely new field known as metaboloepigenetics.

“I’m proud of Melbourne IVF’s world-leading biomarker research, particularly as it has such exciting implications for improving future patient treatments,” said Professor Gardner.  

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