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Researchers Isolate Egg-Producing Stem Cells From Adult Human Ovaries

For the first time, Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers have isolated egg-producing stem cells from the ovaries of reproductive age women and shown these cells can produce what appear to be normal egg cells or oocytes. In the March issue of Nature Medicine, the team from the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology at MGH reports the latest follow-up study to their now-landmark 2004 Nature paper that first suggested female mammals continue producing egg cells into adulthood.

"The primary objective of the current study was to prove that oocyte-producing stem cells do in fact exist in the ovaries of women during reproductive life, which we feel this study demonstrates very clearly," says Jonathan Tilly, PhD, director of the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology in the MGH Vincent Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who led the study. "The discovery of oocyte precursor cells in adult human ovaries, coupled with the fact that these cells share the same characteristic features of their mouse counterparts that produce fully functional eggs, opens the door for development of unprecedented technologies to overcome infertility in women and perhaps even delay the timing of ovarian failure."

The 2004 report from Tilly's team challenged the fundamental belief, held since the 1950s, that female mammals are born with a finite supply of eggs that is depleted throughout life and exhausted at menopause. That paper and a 2005 follow-up published in Cell showing that bone marrow or blood cell transplants could restore oocyte production in adult female mice after fertility-destroying chemotherapy were controversial; but in the intervening years, several studies from the MGH-Vincent group and other researchers around the world have supported Tilly's work and conclusions.

These supporting studies include a 2007 Journal of Clinical Oncology report from the MGH-Vincent team that showed female mice receiving bone marrow transplants after oocyte-destroying chemotherapy were able to have successful pregnancies, delivering pups that were their genetic offspring and not of the marrow donors. A 2009 study from a team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, published in Nature Cell Biology, not only isolated and cultured oocyte-producing stem cells (OSCs) from adult mice but also showed that those OSCs, after transplantation into the ovaries of chemotherapy-treated female mice, gave rise to mature oocytes that were ovulated, fertilized and developed into healthy offspring.

"That study singlehandedly deflated many of the arguments from critics of our earlier Nature paper by showing that oocyte-producing stem cells exist in mice and could develop into fully functional eggs," says Tilly. Another paper from a west-coast biotechnology company, published in Differentiation in 2010, provided further independent confirmation of Tilly's earlier conclusions regarding the presence of oocyte-producing stem cells in ovaries of adult mice.

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