An EU-funded knowledge-sharing project has made cutting-edge non-invasive prenatal testing techniques available to couples undergoing IVF in Estonia, boosting chances of pregnancy for those struggling with infertility there.


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© Romolo Tavani #65302658 source: stock.adobe.com 2020

Estonia’s University of Tartu has developed a new laboratory offering top-notch, non-invasive prenatal screening alongside advanced embryo tests for those undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – a first for the Baltic country.

In setting up the facility, scientists collaborated with two leading fertility research centres in Belgium and the UK – the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and the University of Oxford – through the EU WIDENLIFE project. WIDENLIFE is funded under the EU’s TWINNING scheme which is designed to link emerging research institutions with established ones and spread knowledge and expertise.

The cooperation resulted in the University of Tartu developing methods of non-invasive prenatal testing and pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos selected for IVF. Using a combination of single cell analysis and software algorithms, the system – similar to others developed elsewhere – can analyse the likelihood of successful implantation and development of an embryo. This information is then used to shape an embryo selection strategy for those undergoing IVF therapy.

‘The transfer of know-how and expertise between the universities in the project network has helped couples in Estonia with unsuccessful reproductive histories to achieve normal pregnancies,’ says WIDENLIFE project coordinator Ants Kurg, professor of molecular biotechnology at the University of Tartu.

Cost as obstacle

Prior to the project, pregnant women in Estonia had limited and expensive access to non-invasive prenatal testing because samples were shipped abroad for analysis – an option with an additional environmental cost. Women with high-risk pregnancies could opt for a technique that involved taking a sample of amniotic fluid in a process that increases the chance of miscarriage.

Thanks to WIDENLIFE, a test now also available in Estonia involves taking a liquid biopsy and analysing foetal chromosomal patterns from the blood of a pregnant woman. It is capable of detecting abnormalities including the likelihood of the unborn child having trisomy 21, more commonly known as Down’s Syndrome.

Prior to WIDENLIFE, women undergoing IVF in Estonia had only very limited and expensive access to pre-implantation testing. Thanks to the project, a test for analysing IVF embryos prior to implantation is now also available.

Infertility: ‘serious issue across Europe’

Infertility affects people around the world and its causes are at times difficult to determine. However, reproductive diseases like endometriosis are thought to be a key factor and are estimated to account for 20 % of poor health among women around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Furthering knowledge on infertility, WIDENLIFE partners shared data on reproductive health factors among women that can lead to difficulties conceiving.

‘Infertility is a really serious issue across Europe,’ Kurg says. ‘We built a network of exchange between the three leading centres in Estonia, Belgium and the UK to share expertise and help advance our knowledge.’

One factor identified as an important contributor to infertility is the current tendency in many Western countries to postpone parenthood until later in life. While younger women with reproductive diseases can often achieve normal pregnancies, the chances that such diseases will be a barrier to pregnancy increase with age, according to Kurg.

During the project, young Estonian reproductive health scientists were trained by leading experts at the two partner universities.

‘This gave them a unique experience and the opportunity to gain new knowledge under the guidance of the world’s top specialists in the field,’ says Kurg.



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