Research in reproduction has resulted in major advances in the treatment of human infertility and in the development of assisted reproduction technologies such as IVF.
Infertility afflicts 1 in 5 Australian couples, with both male and female partners equally affected. In women, conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and endometriosis can cause infertility but can also have a major impact on a woman’s quality of life and ability to work.
In men, globally including in Australia, there is an alarming continuous decline in sperm count. Although the reasons are not yet understood, this decline in sperm may be an indication of poorer overall health and/or endocrine disruptors (substances that can modify our hormones) in our modern environment.
Australia is amongst the highest per capita users of IVF; with approximately 5% of children (about one in every classroom) conceived using reproductive medicine therapies such as IVF. In fact, Australian reproductive researchers were among the earliest pioneers of IVF and a number of Australian-led reproductive medicine innovations are now used around the world.
Decades of reproductive health research have also shown that a person’s lifelong health is influenced by the health and environment of their parents – during pregnancy and even before their conception.
It is now common knowledge that a mother’s health during pregnancy is critical to the healthy development of her baby, but it is perhaps less well known that her health before she was pregnant also matters. This is because a female’s nutrition and other lifestyle factors, such as smoking, influence the quality of her eggs. Even earlier, before she was born, the DNA signals in her eggs were established according to her own mother’s nutrition and environment. So your grandmother’s lifestyle while she was pregnant with your mother influenced your health.
In a similar way, the health and the environment of a father-to-be influences the DNA in his sperm and its ability to fertilise an egg months before intercourse occurs. These sperm signals that are transmitted to the egg at conception influence that baby’s risk of health disorders in adulthood.
Through this research we now understand that a father’s pre-conception health is just as important as the mother’s.
So research in reproduction has shown us that the key to ensuring better health in future generations is to focus on the health of parents-to-be. We now understand that having a healthy diet and lifestyle and achieving a healthy weight in both parents-to-be increases the chance of having a healthy child.
This knowledge can now be used to provide evidence-based advice to couples who are planning to become parents, to give them the best chance at conceiving a healthy child with a healthy future ahead of them.