Natasha Rajani and her husband, Omar, wanted a baby, but tests showed that her eggs were of poor quality—a hurdle that dramatically reduced her chances of getting pregnant.
The Toronto couple tried several fertility treatments before their doctor suggested a new treatment called AUGMENT, pioneered by Northeastern University Distinguished Professor Jonathan Tilly
and OvaScience, a company that Tilly co-founded. AUGMENT boosts the health of eggs by harnessing the power of ovarian stem cells that Tilly discovered.
After just one round of AUGMENT, Natasha was pregnant. In April, the couple had a son, Zain—the first baby born using this treatment.
“It’s an indescribable feeling to have Zain,” says Natasha. “To see him grow and reach new milestones gives us such great pleasure.”
Magical moments like these are what drive Tilly. A worldwide expert in reproductive biology, he has spent his career trying to understand how eggs and ovaries function.
The scientific community had long thought that women are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have—and that those eggs die off until none remain at menopause. But Tilly overturned conventional wisdom a decade ago. He discovered that women’s ovaries are capable of producing new eggs throughout adulthood, because of young stem cells that Tilly called egg precursor cells. Tilly realized that these special cells could open up a new world of fertility options. He secured patents on the commercial use of the cells and launched OvaScience in 2011.
“Egg precursor cells offer this huge potential to change and rewrite the landscape for human reproduction,” Tilly says.
AUGMENT aims to improve upon in vitro fertilization (IVF), the most common fertility treatment of the last 40 years. In IVF, a woman takes hormones to stimulate her ovaries to produce mature eggs. Those eggs are removed and joined with sperm in a lab, and the resulting embryos are placed back into the woman to—ideally—generate a full-term pregnancy.
But if “old” or poor-quality eggs are harvested for IVF, those eggs lack the energy necessary to sculpt a new human life. Such “weak” eggs can lead to genetic defects or miscarriages.
AUGMENT addresses that problem by using egg precursor cells, which are removed from a woman’s ovarian tissue in a brief outpatient procedure. Mitochondria—the engines that fuel and empower cells—are pulled from the precursor cells and injected into the same woman’s poor-quality eggs, while sperm are also added. The mitochondria boost the chance of pregnancy.
The AUGMENT treatment is not yet available in the United States, but OvaScience is offering it in major fertility centers in Canada, Panama, Turkey, Spain, and Dubai. A dozen AUGMENT babies had been born as of mid-October.
The possibilities of egg precursor cells stretch well beyond the recent births, Tilly says. He is exploring whether the precursor cells could be used to delay menopause and the many health problems that come with it. He also wonders whether the easily replicated precursor cells, a building block of human life, could be altered to reduce a child’s chances of developing genetic illnesses such as breast cancer or Huntington’s disease. Finally, Tilly is trying to grow egg precursor cells into mature eggs in the lab. Growing them outside of the body would not only eliminate the need for the painful and expensive hormone regimen that precedes IVF, but it would generate an unlimited supply of eggs for any woman struggling to get pregnant.
“Can we open up even more fertility options for women who, right now, have zero options?” Tilly asks. “The more tools we can offer, the greater the opportunity for success and the greater number of women we can help around the globe.”