EGG QUALITY 3.0: “ovarian priming” can be another useful strategy for women with diminished ovarian reserve

Finding at least one high quality egg is the most important factor in achieving a successful pregnancy. In previous blog posts, I have outlined various strategies to achieve that goal. But what about women whose ovaries do not respond well to standard ovarian stimulation protocols? For them treatment can sometimes seem frustrating or even futile. New data supports that “ovarian priming” may help women with diminished ovarian reserve (DOR) achieve that goal even if they have a history of poor response to IVF treatment.

The common theme of Advanced Reproductive Treatments (ART) is to produce a group of mature healthy eggs in order to create at least one or more healthy embryos. In 2011 a large consensus  meeting agreed upon the definition of a ‘poor response’ to ovarian stimulation and described it as three or fewer oocytes recovered with a conventional IVF protocol. Pregnancies do occur when even one egg is recovered. However, success rates are markedly lower in patients with DOR. The goal of creating this definition was to encourage research on how we can better serve women with this biological challenge.

The most common reason for DOR is a simple depletion in the number of eggs secondary to aging. However new information now suggests that the quality of the remaining eggs is also impacting their ability to respond to the hormonal signals and thus limiting the ability of the ovaries to produce multiple follicles. The goal of preparing or “priming” the potential population of eggs prior to IVF is to optimize the ability of the ovaries to respond prior to starting the hormonal stimulation. Several strategies for priming have been used for the last several years with much debate about which (if any) is best. The FOLLPRIM study  was designed to compare them in patients with an established history of DOR.

The FOLLPRIM study was a randomized prospective study intended to minimize the risk of bias based upon protocol selection. Patients that had failed an IVF attempt were randomly assigned to one of three priming protocols prior to their next IVF attempt. They were either given estradiol (to simulate the cycle of young fertile women), an oral contraceptive (to synchronize follicle development) or testosterone (which serves as a precursor to estradiol as well as to help promote the earlier stages of egg development). The patients then repeated their IVF cycle with a comparison of number of eggs recovered after priming compared to their initial response without priming. The results were very encouraging.

They found that all three strategies increased the number of mature eggs that were recovered through IVF compared to the unprimed cycle. In fact, they averaged two to three more eggs per patient. Although it was uncertain which priming protocol had the highest pregnancy rate, the data suggested that the testosterone priming might be the best. Further research will be needed to determine if this is true. In fact, another technique (not tested in this study) to boost testosterone levels is to give women the supplement DHEA for one to three months prior to IVF. Many centers have adopted this strategy as well.

What’s most important about this research is that women with DOR are being given choices rather than simply discouraged or re-directed to egg donors. Ovarian priming prior to IVF is one option that should be considered. Combined with other tools like anti-oxidants and CoQ10, more women are overcoming this biological challenge of DOR and having healthy babies.

[r1]Link to http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/7/1616.full.pdf+html

[r2]Link to http://www.pubfacts.com/detail/25955224/Antral-follicle-priming-FOLLPRIM-prior-to-ICSI-in-previously-diagnosed-low-responders-A-randomized-c

“What else can I do to improve the quality of my eggs?” the new frontier in fertility treatment

Unlike men, it is very difficult to assess a woman’s fertility at any given time. A man simply needs a quick trip to the video closet to collect a sperm specimen for viewing under the microscope; whereas it is only through the process of IVF that it is possible to truly assess the quality of a woman’s eggs. This entails several weeks of medication to prepare for an egg retrieval at which time her eggs are collected, fertilized and then monitored for normal embryo development prior to placing them back in her body to implant and become a pregnancy. There is no comparable test. As a result, recommendations of treatment to improve egg quality have been based upon unproven and often misguided observations.  

One of the more popular myths has been to encourage women to consume wheat grass. Although the suggestion is harmless enough, the only basis for its link to “improved fertility” can be traced back to a Kansas farmer from the 1930’s named Charles Schnabel. He claimed that when he fed wheat grass to his ailing chickens that they not only recovered but increased their egg laying potential. Not the best model to making assumptions about human egg quality.

Another folk remedy is the use of royal jelly. This is a special secretion made by honey bees and fed to future generations in order to cultivate the conversion of a drone to a fertile queen bee. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well in humans and has been linked to severe allergic reactions, asthma and even in rare situations death. Analysis of this chemical product reveals that it is little more than vitamins and other healthy nutrients. I think the lesson here is that good nutrition is important which is why it is a good idea to start a prenatal vitamin at least 3 months prior to trying to conceive.

A more recent recommendation has been for women with low ovarian reserve to take the pre-hormone supplement DHEA. While there is limited data that it may cause a slight increase in the number of eggs produced— in this clinical trial the average participant went from producing three eggs to four—there was not any demonstration of an improved pregnancy rate. From a practical standpoint, since it required 90 days of the supplement prior to undergoing IVF these patients may have produced even more eggs by going through 2 or 3 cycles of IVF instead. Most importantly, without a measureable improvement in pregnancy rate, it is premature to suggest that this may improve egg quality. There are ongoing studies which may provide insight as to whether there are some women that can benefit from this treatment but at this point the question remains unresolved. In fact, the available research is given a “C” grade indicating “there is unclear scientific evidence for its use.”

A well researched suggestion has been to optimize the energy storage/ utilization of the egg through supplementation with CoEnzyme Q10. This has not been considered a necessary supplement since your body can manufacture this on its own. However, the human egg has the greatest energy demand of any cell in the body; and its needs go up considerably during the process of follicle growth. It was therefore theorized that supplementing with CoQ10 could improve egg quality. Early studies have confirmed this theory.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that avoiding harmful chemicals is also likely to improve egg quality as well. There is a growing list of toxins referred to as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) that have been linked to diminished fertility and reduced egg quality in animals. Many of these same products have been tied to a reduction in male fertility which is easier to track through diminished sperm counts and decreased motility. Until it’s confirmed that EDC’s don’t compromise egg quality as well, I recommend that you take steps to reduce your exposure to chemicals like Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates.

In summary, here are some steps you can take and have confidence that you’re doing all that you can to optimize your chance becoming pregnant:

  • Avoid well intended but not well researched recommendations
  • Begin a prenatal vitamin several months before you want to become pregnant
  • Take CoEnzyme Q10 to optimize the quality of your eggs—typical dose is 100 mg taken two or three times each day

Consider modifying your food choices, cooking preparation, personal care products and lifestyle to reduce your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. If you need some specific advice, check out my book PERFECT HORMONE BALANCE FOR FERTILITY which is loaded with useful charts, tables and tips.