Reproductive science is the study of the biology of the gamete (sperm and eggs) through to the science behind conception and embryo development. The Reproductive Science group, led by Laureate Professor John Aitken, is an internationally-renowned research group investigating new and unique aspects of reproductive health and biotechnologies.
Approximately 1 in 6 couples in Australia are infertile and 1 in 3 women aged over 35 years of age have fertility problems. (Source - ABC Health & Wellbeing Infertility Fact File)
In fact, more than 1 per cent of babies are born as a result of assisted reproduction in Australia and this marks a new generation of children who are the product of successful scientific technologies. (Source - ABC Health & Wellbeing Infertility Fact File)
The increased popularity of IVF technologies in our society means that the need for continuing research and advancing fertility technologies is evermore. Researchers in the reproductive science group are working to unravel and understand both male and female factors which can affect fertility and reproduction.
Female reproductive biology is a critical factor mediating the success of both assisted and unassisted reproduction. Researchers in the reproductive science group study the factors and molecules that control the regulation of female reproductive cells, known as oocytes. The health and development of oocytes is essential for reproduction and the influence of genetics, signalling molecules known as cytokines and environmental influences such as exposure to synthetic chemicals are all aspects of research for this group.
A largely neglected aspect of assisted reproduction, male infertility, is also a major topic of interest for the reproductive science group. Researchers have identified various genetic factors that may affect the development and maturation of sperm as well as critical influences that may result in DNA damage in the male sperm cell line and affect the success of reproductive technologies. The precise mechanisms controlling the ability of sperm to migrate and fertilise an egg are also major research focuses for the reproductive science group.
Molecular investigation into the quality and likely success of male and female gametes as well as embryo development is also an important field of research for the reproductive science group. Genetic factors and molecules that can regulate gene expression (known as epigenetics) are targets for research into the success of assisted conception and early development.
Interestingly, in contrast, there have been relatively few advancements in the field of contraception since the development of the female contraceptive pill in the 1960s. Worldwide 12% of women 15–49 married or in union wanting to avoid a pregnancy did not have access to or are not using an effective method of contraception in 2012. (Source – World Health Organization). The social, economic and emotional impact of these unintended pregnancies is huge and it highlights the need for more research into effective and affordable contraceptives. Laureate Professor John Aitken and the reproductive science group have been working to develop a new form of female contraceptives that simultaneously paralyse sperm and protect against sexually transmitted diseases. The potential for advancements in safe contraception such as this in developing countries is enormous and yet despite this, the reproductive science group is one of the only research groups in the world who work to develop new contraceptives. A male contraceptive pill is also under development within the group.
The Reproductive Science group has also developed several successful patents, including a new process for separating sperm for IVF procedures that is more gentle and sensitive than current separation techniques, improving the likelihood of obtaining a high quality sperm for fertilisation. This technique is undergoing clinical trials currently and more information can been obtained through the biotechnology company NuSep (www.nusep.com.au).