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New strategies to improve reproductive success in Australian livestock

Australia is the World’s largest exporter of sheep meat and the third largest exporter of beef, with the red meat industry contributing billions of dollars to the national economy. The international market for both products is growing despite serious challenges within the Australian livestock industry, including drought and feed restriction, and now flood and bushfires.

These factors all combine to create an acute need for strategies to rapidly increase herd/flock size. Assisted reproduction technologies (ART) have the potential to do this and, when combined with genetic selection strategies, improvements in the quality of the herd and its ability to withstand external challenges can be achieved at the same time.

A recent review by Australian researchers provides a timely reminder of why, and how, knowledge of animal reproduction is being harnessed to optimise calving/lambing rates.

Much research has gone into improving the ART technologies themselves, leading to increased efficiency and decreased costs. However, the transfer of an ART-generated embryo to a recipient cow or ewe is another major determinant of the effectiveness of ART. The ability of a recipient to establish and maintain a pregnancy is a key factor in breeding success, and the major cause of reproductive loss is failure to maintain a pregnancy. The authors highlight that improvements in the selection and management of recipient animals could play a major role in increasing productivity in Australian livestock industries.

Australian researchers investigate whether supplements can improve egg quality and fertility in women

Oocyte (egg) quality has a major influence on female fertility and pregnancy outcomes, and scientists are trying to find ways to improve or preserve oocyte quality in women. Two recent papers from Australian researchers have addressed whether a particular supplement, nicotinamide mononucleotide, or NMN, can improve egg quality in women.

One study focussed on testing whether NMN could prevent the loss of eggs by women undergoing treatment for cancer. Cancer treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, cause the loss of the ovarian follicles (primordial follicles) that contain the oocytes, leading to ovarian insufficiency and premature menopause. The authors hypothesized that treatment of young mice with NMN, a precursor of the well-known cofactor NAD+, would protect their eggs from the cancer therapies. Unfortunately, intraperitoneal administration of NMN could not protect oocytes from either radiation or a chemotherapy agent under the experimental conditions used. It is likely that one action of cancer therapies is to inflict DNA damage in the eggs, so unless the damage is repaired quickly, the egg will die. The authors suggest that further research should investigate whether different NMN formulations could protect against DNA damage in oocytes during cancer treatment.

Another study addressed the problem of declining egg quality with ageing, an important problem as many women wish to fall pregnant later in life when their oocyte number and quality is rapidly declining. The authors showed that treating old mice with NMN in the drinking water could restore egg quality and subsequent fertility, and that this was recapitulated by treating eggs recovered from old mice in vitro. This exciting finding suggests that NMN supplementation could be a promising approach to preserve fertility in older women, but independent verification will be required. The authors caution against the immediate use of NMN supplements by patients until further research establishes how this treatment actually works.  

Could chlamydia be a silent cause of infertility in men?

Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection in Australia, however many people who have been exposed to the virus will have no symptoms and will be unaware of their infection. Chlamydia infection in women is linked to infertility, but whether chlamydia causes infertility in men is unknown.

Researchers in Australia have now found active chlamydia infection shows a surprisingly high prevalence in testis biopsies from infertile men. Although this research cannot reveal a causal link between chlamydia infection and human male infertility, studies in mice suggest that chlamydia infection in the testis can directly impair sperm production.

More research is urgently needed to establish whether chlamydia is a potentially preventable cause of human male infertility.

How contraception could improve human welfare, the environment and the climate

A commentary from US scientists entitled Climate Change and Contraception is a timely reminder of how research in reproduction could have wide-ranging implications for our planet and for our ability to tackle climate change.

The article, published in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, highlights the urgent need for other approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – and one approach that has been “largely overlooked by the international climate community” is contraception.

Because population growth is a key driver of climate change, the authors argue that improving universal access to contraception in both men and women would reduce millions of unintended pregnancies and births, increase the ability of couples to plan their families and slow population growth. And slower population growth in the future could lead to significant reductions in global emissions.

To achieve this, the authors argue that there needs to be more investment in family planning programmes in developing countries, wider distribution of contraceptives already on the market, and more research and development of improved and/or novel contraceptives in both men and women.

The authors conclude that improved access to contraception worldwide “would have a profound positive impact on human welfare, the climate and the environment”.

Read the commentary here

Australian researchers develop evidence-based online tool to support breastfeeding

Lactation is the final phase of the reproductive cycle. While 96% of Australian women initiate breastfeeding, most are unable to sustain it for the minimum recommended duration.

Women often receive conflicting advice that can have a negative impact on their ability to initiate and sustain breastfeeding. Therefore, an important strategy to improve lactation rates is the education of health professionals so that they can better support women during breastfeeding.

Australian scientists have now developed the online tool LactaMap to deliver evidence-based support to doctors and other healthcare professionals. This enables breastfeeding women to have access to consistent and high-quality advice during an important period in their baby’s development.  

Medical practitioners utilise LactaMap’s clinical practice guidelines to develop a personal care plan for their patient. LactaMap can be accessed for free by medical practitioners as well as the general public.

Read more here

How reproductive technologies are being harnessed to produce “ethical eggs”

Every year, approximately 7 billion male chickens are slaughtered when they are a day old. Apart from obviously not being able to produce eggs, male chickens grow too slowly to be used for meat production. After they hatch, males are manually identified and destined for slaughter.

But now new reproductive technologies are focussing on identifying male-bearing eggs soon after fertilisation. Different technologies being developed around the world, including Australia, can detect male-bearing eggs well before they hatch. Instead of hatching, these eggs can be frozen before a mature chick develops and can then be sold for use in other industries.

This is an amazing example of how reproductive technology can be harnessed for ethical agriculture practice and to improve economic outcomes. Read more here.

Could a supplement improve IVF success rates in older women?

As women age, the number and quality of their eggs (oocytes) rapidly declines. Poorer oocyte quality is a major factor in lower IVF success rates in older women. However, Australian scientists have discovered that a dietary supplement improves oocyte quality, embryo development and fertility outcomes in ageing female mice.

This research has been published online  and, although it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is generating a lot of interest amongst reproductive scientists.

Stay tuned for updates…

Warnings on the use of “alternative” hormone replacement therapies

Australian experts have warned of the potential dangers of bioidentical hormone therapy to treat menopausal symptoms in women. These therapies are derived from plant-based hormones and are marketed to patients as natural alternatives to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). However experts are concerned that these therapies are ineffective, costly, and could put women at risk of cancer.

Many women continue to seek alternative treatments such as bioidentical and natural therapies due to concerns raised over the safety of conventional HRT. These alternative treatments have not been  thoroughly researched, yet extensive research has shown that HRT can be safely used by women in their 50s to treat menopausal symptoms. 

Still, alternative therapies continue to be prescribed and used, despite warnings from menopause experts in Australia and around the world. Read more here

The fight to save Australia’s endangered animals

Australia is home to a remarkable diversity of wildlife, many of which are under threat from human activity. Scientists are now in a race to save our unique species from extinction, and reproductive biology has a key role to play.

But what are some of the key issues that have contributed to the demise of wildlife in the first place?

The ABC’s 4 corners program recently investigated the fight to save Australia’s endangered species. View the program or the transcript here:

Recognition of pregnancy in marsupials

Marsupials give birth to tiny, underdeveloped young that then complete their development outside of the mother, usually in a pouch. Because their young spend so little time in the uterus, marsupial pregnancies are very short. It has long been thought that a female marsupial responds to signals during ovulation but that her body was not able to recognise the presence of an embryo or fetus.

New collaborative research between Australia and the US has shown that marsupials do indeed recognise the presence of a developing embryo, and that their reproductive systems rapidly change to support the pregnancy.

This research is important because it suggests that recognition of pregnancy is a common feature of all live bearing mammals. Importantly it could lead to the development of new technologies, such as a pregnancy test, that could be used to improve breeding programs for threatened marsupial species.