How does an embryo find its way?

A young Melbourne researcher has discovered that a compound which attracts white blood cells to areas of inflammation also plays an important role in attracting human embryos to the womb, supporting the establishment of a healthy pregnancy.

Approximately 1 in 6 Australian couples will experience infertility. A large part of this may be due to faulty coordination and guidance of the embryo to the mother’s womb.

Natalie Hannan, of Prince Henry’s Institute, has found that the compound fractalkine is also produced by the uterus. To ensure a healthy pregnancy, the lining of the uterus must produce factors that attract the embryo to implant and begin to grow. Fractalkine may help the placenta to form and tap into the mother’s blood supply, by guiding the cells from which it develops to their right destination.

“In short, fractalkine plays an important role in the establishment of a healthy pregnancy,”  says Hannan of the Uterine Biology Group at Prince Henry’s whose work led to the unravelling of the compound’s role.

“The problem for many infertile couples lies in failure of the embryo to become properly embedded in the mother’s womb. A better understanding of this complicated process should advance treatments for infertility.

“Although infertility treatment has dramatically improved over the past few years, more than 75 per cent of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) attempts will fail. A large part of this may be due to faulty communication between the mother and the baby, involving compounds such as fractalkine.”

Hannan says that fractalkine is produced by the lining of the uterus at the time of implantation, when the embryo makes a special receptor that enables it to respond to fractalkine.

Using advanced technology that allows the movement of cells to be measured, Hannan discovered that human placental cells migrate towards fractalkine. Without fractalkine and many other similar compounds involved in the control of the essential processes of early pregnancy, implantation will fail.

“This exciting finding may improve IVF success rates by providing new targets for infertility treatment. It also aids our understanding of what makes a healthy pregnancy, which is ultimately a successful start to life,” Hannan says.

Natalie Hannan is one of 16 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to school students and the general public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program hosted by the Melbourne Museum and sponsored by the Federal and Victorian governments, New Scientist, The Australian and Quantum Communications Victoria.  One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

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