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Lumen Winter 2016 Issue
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World-first egg research leads to new fertility treatment

Dr Hannah Brown

Dr Hannah Brown
Observing the creation of life for the first time proved a career defining moment for medical researcher Dr Hannah Brown. Hannah was in the third year of her Bachelor of Science studies at the University of Adelaide with little idea of what her postgraduate future might look like. Then she did a small-group learning research project on ovulation.

“I was just so excited at what I was seeing for the first time – watching that spark of life, a process that I never imagined I would see,” said Hannah.

“It was because I’d been exposed to this research project through small-group learning that I suddenly knew what I wanted to do. Straight after that I did my Honours in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and loved it.”

Today Hannah, 33, is an award-winning scientist at the University’s internationally acclaimed Robinson Research Institute (RRI) where she’s a postdoctoral researcher pioneering new advances in fertility treatment.

Her work is attracting international recognition. Earlier this year she was invited to attend the Global Young Scientists Summit in Singapore – GYSS@one-north – where she mixed with 300 of the world’s leading scientific minds, including Nobel Laureates and Turing Award winners.

She also met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the annual Science meets Parliament event in Canberra in March for a two-day program of professional development and networking. Hannah’s research into the importance of haemoglobin in oocytes, a woman’s eggs, earned her the SA Young Investigator of the Year Award last year.

She was overseas when her mentor, RRI’s Associate Professor Jeremy Thompson made the initial discovery that oocytes contain haemoglobin. He was fascinated about the role it played and invited Hannah back to Adelaide to look into the significance of the finding.

“I’d spent four years at universities in France and the US doing post doc research which was critical for my development as it exposed me to different ways of doing science,” said Hannah.

“But I was ready to return home and jumped at the opportunity because it was a great fit with my previous research in ovarian biology and I realised there was much more to discover.”

The role of haemoglobin in transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide in red blood cells had been extensively researched but very little was known about its importance in reproduction. Scientists at RRI believe its key function is to deliver oxygen to the oocyte and have discovered the protein is critical for egg quality. Haemoglobin levels increase dramatically leading up to ovulation and if this doesn’t happen it can impact fertilisation.

In an important breakthrough in laboratory tests, Hannah successfully added haemoglobin to mouse oocytes and succeeded in mending broken eggs. Estimates indicate that about one in six couples will experience some form of clinical infertility so this world-first discovery could lead to treatments benefiting thousands of couples struggling to start a family.

“The observation was very exciting,” said Hannah. “We made a small but significant improvement to the oocytes and resulting embryos.”

Treating immature eggs is cutting-edge technology known as in vitro maturation (IVM) and differs from conventional in vitro fertilisation (IVF) when mature eggs are collected.

“IVM technology is exciting for IVF clinics because we can finish growing an egg in the laboratory which isn’t quite ready for fertilisation,” said Hannah. “IVM may provide another option for women and also girls who are impacted by childhood cancer for example.

“It means we can remove their oocytes and freeze them before they begin cancer treatments. I believe over the next five years there will be significant technological improvements and we’ll be able to see what’s happening inside the fallopian tubes.

“We are incredibly lucky to be part of the Australian Research Council-funded Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics, which is allowing us to create new windows into the body, to see these things happen in real time.”

Hannah won an SA Young Tall Poppy science award two years ago for her other main research focus – understanding the origins of diabetes and how embryos respond to high levels of glucose during the earliest stages of pregnancy. She’s shown that the embryo is able to sense high glucose exposure while in the fallopian tube and uterus and can alter its behaviour – a metabolic profile that becomes permanently imprinted.

“We know that there are lots of changes occurring because of diabetes during pregnancy and that this is a very hostile environment for the egg and embryo to grow in.

“There’s something happening in those first few days of life because a diabetic mother is far more likely to have a child with diabetes. There are about 30,000 Australian babies born with type 2 diabetes every year so it’s all about breaking that cycle.”

Hannah is trying to improve education around how women can improve lifestyle factors to keep their eggs in the best shape – behaviours that should start well before they think about starting a family. Studies have shown that smoking is terrible for sperm and eggs, drinking alcohol is damaging and obese women are more likely to have overweight children.

“Fertility is also ageist. Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have and once they reach 37 egg quality is really on a rapid decline,” said Hannah.

Robinson Research Institute - healthy children for life

The health and wellbeing of every child is determined by a complex interaction of genes, environmental factors and experiences during development, starting from the moment of conception. Each of us comes into the world with unique potential, which is laid down before birth and sets the course of health over the life trajectory.

Understanding how lifestyle factors, environment and genes interact to influence reproduction, pregnancy and birth is vital for ensuring our children have the best prospects for optimal growth, effective learning and a healthy life, and are protected from chronic conditions. The Robinson Research Institute is a collective of almost 400 internationally renowned researchers and students advancing knowledge and improving practise in human reproduction, pregnancy and child health. 

Institute members focus on the early stages of life to promote health and well-being in children and families over the life course and across generations, in Australia and around the world. The research strives to enable a healthy start through pre-conception planning, nurturing the baby during pregnancy and birth, strengthening the brain and body in early life, and advancing child and adolescent health to treat and prevent disease.

If you would like to support the Robinson Research Institute to help progress our research please contact

Story by Ian Williams


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