When I was an undergraduate student we were introduced to reproductive science as a part of a first year biology course, and I remember being amazed to learn about the huge transformations that reproductive cells must undergo before they can successfully come together to form an embryo. By the time I reached third year, I decided that I wanted to do work placement and an honours year with the PRC for Reproductive Science, and I quickly became hooked on the fast-paced, dynamic nature of scientific research.
The ultimate goal of my research would be to improve our understanding of factors that regulate spermatogonial stem cell function, and apply this understanding to develop more robust in vitro culture approaches that will allow these cells to be used as a therapeutic tool to treat male infertility. Such therapeutic approaches would be particularly relevant for male survivors of childhood cancer who have been rendered permanently infertile by chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatments. Because pre-pubertal boys do not have the option for cryopreservation of sperm prior to cancer treatments, they can instead cryopreserve a testis biopsy that contains spermatogonial stem cells. The hope is that these cells will be able to be expanded in vitro, then transplanted back into the patients’ testes when he reaches adulthood to restore his natural fertility. Unfortunately, current approaches are insufficient to achieve this goal, meaning a dire need exists for research progress in the decades before these boys reach adulthood.
Dr Tessa Lord is a reproductive biologist with the PRC for Reproductive Science at the University of Newcastle. Dr Lord was awarded her PhD from the University of Newcastle in 2015, and her doctoral studies focused on understanding molecular processes that drive the rapid demise of the oocyte (egg) in the culture dish, potentially impeding a successful IVF outcome. This research identified oxidative stress as a key factor instigating oocyte degeneration, and demonstrated that supplementation of oocyte culture media with the antioxidant melatonin could prolong the window for fertilisation and improve the quality the embryos produced.
Following her PhD, Dr Lord moved to Washington State University, USA, to work on male reproductive biology as a Postdoctoral fellow with Professor Jon Oatley. As a member of the Centre for Reproductive Biology at WSU, she conducted research on spermatogonial stem cells, with a particular focus on identifying transcription factors that regulate stem cell maintenance and self-renewal, and on developing novel high-throughput methodologies that can be used to study the stem cell pool in the testis. Outcomes of these research projects included the identification of proteins that are integral for spermatogonial stem cell function and male fertility, particularly in response to stressors such as chemotherapy.
After 3 years in the United States, Dr Lord moved back to UON as a research and teaching academic. Work in the Lord lab is primarily focused on understanding how the stem cells in the testis function to drive sperm production, and on harnessing this knowledge develop therapeutic approaches to treat infertility.
The focal areas of my current and future research are:
1. Understanding the microenvironment within which stem cells reside in the testis, with a particular interest in oxygen tension
2. Identifying / characterising molecular networks that regulate self-renewal of spermatogonial stem cells, including oxygen-responsive transcription factors
3. Adapting culture conditions to facilitate robust maintenance and proliferation of spermatogonial stem cells in vitro, allowing for transplantation that could potentially restore sperm production in an infertile testis