There’s a new approach to both avoiding babies and obtaining babies, and it’s an egg decoy that is being investigated by Matteo Avella, a lead researcher at the National Institutes of Health, according to Digital Trends. It’s been well established that sperm will migrate to the female ovum, or egg, after ovulation, and that there is a chemical attraction and reaction that allows fertilization. Scientists at NIH have been experimenting with “fake” ova that chemically react like real ova in order to discover how this could be a breakthrough for two common issues: contraception and infertility.
While it seems unlikely that one product would help with opposite ends of the reproductive spectrum, that’s exactly what it seems to be doing in live mice. While there are many trials that must be successful before experimentation can begin with humans, scientists are very hopeful. The mice have shown zero complications or side effects from the “decoy eggs” that have been implanted in them.
The process works through a biochemical reaction. The fake ova are agarose beads, which are carbohydrate particles often used for lab testing in many different studies. For this study, scientists take the agarose beads and coat them with a peptide called zona pellucida glycoprotein 2, or ZP2 for short. ZP2 is the chemical that is known for binding sperm to eggs, allowing one sperm to break the barrier of the egg and cause conception. After one infiltrates the peptide, no more are able to penetrate the ovum due to a chemical reaction.
Avella has implanted ZP2 decoys in mice, noting it did not cause health or reproductive problems. So how could it possibly aid in contraception? Sperm cannot detect the ZP2 decoys from real ova, so they are drawn to the decoy egg and away from the legitimate ova, preventing conception. While it is unknown if this would work as effectively in human subjects, scientists believe it is a good possibility. The actual statistical effectiveness in humans is unknown, but it was high in mice. The good news is, once the decoy eggs were removed, the mice were able to conceive healthy litters very quickly, which is a factor that many birth control methods today do not have. For many women, it takes months to regulate and ovulate again after being on contraceptive pills or Depo-Provera.
So how does this peptide decoy help with infertility? The fact that sperm are attracted to and attach to the ZP2-coated beads could help researchers improve the odds of successful in vitro fertilization and other assisted reproduction technologies because they know that those sperm are healthy sperm that follow normal signals; therefore, they are the best sperm to attempt in vitro fertilization with. Typically, scientists have to visually inspect sperm under a microscope in order to determine if the sperm are anatomically correct and behaving normally. This saves that time-consuming step by attracting sperm that are capable of penetrating a real human egg, and lessens the risk of human error, thus increasing the woman’s chance of conceiving with IVF. The strongest sperm attach to the decoy first, so scientists are able to determine the best-odds sperm for fertilization of an ova.
While Avella’s work is exciting in the field of reproduction, it will likely be many years before this is an option for humans — either for contraception or in vitro fertilization. Not only does safety have to be proven, as in all medical studies, but also success rates for both contraception and in vitro fertilization must be established through human trials. While there is no evidence the peptide decoy egg is harmful to mice, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily safe for humans. More research is indicated, but it would be a boon to couples everywhere who are either actively trying to avoid conception or achieve conception, with very little systemic effects that have plagued hormonal birth control and IVF patients.
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