September 1999

Breakthroughs in conception and contraception hope from scientific study

A team of scientists from the University of Leicester, UK, is working closely with a Chinese laboratory, made famous by its pioneering success in Giant Panda fertility studies, to find new breakthroughs in human fertility problems.

The Leicester team’s work aims to reduce fertility problems faced by couples, including fetal loss, failed implantation, recurrent abortion, stillbirths and prematurity.

They are working with the lab in China where techniques of human fertilisation were successfully applied to the Giant Panda. Now, the Chinese are working with Leicester to advance understanding of contraception.

It is also hoped that the collaboration will provide further insight for the development of new ‘morning-after’ contraceptives and promotion of higher success rates in IVF.

Dr Colin Ockleford, who is leading the Leicester team in the Department of Pre-Clinical Sciences at the University, said: "Human reproductive health is a major issue in Chinese Science where, because of the vast population (as long ago as 1994 mainland China had a population of 1,198.5 million) contraceptive research is a priority.

"My lab is interested in the relationship between the mother and the fetus (materno-fetal interaction) because we wish to reduce fetal loss, infertility through failed implantation and prematurity related perinatal deaths."

"The Chinese priority, however, is to develop new more effective contraceptives that, like the morning after pill, act by denying implantation of the pre-embryo."

"Paradoxically, therefore, we and the Chinese are collaborating because we believe that acquisition of fundamental knowledge about the materno-fetal interaction will be required for both quite different purposes."

Dr Ockleford said that the new view of the World Health Organisation is that reproductive health is promoted when people have safe, ethical control over their fertility. In some instances this will involve contraception in others effective treatments to promote fertility.

The University of Leicester has been working for the past five years with the State Key Laboratory for Reproductive Biology at the Institute of Zoology, The Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, and the collaboration is set to continue over a number of years. The work is funded by The Royal Society in the UK and the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

A wider collaboration with Australian and US laboratories has received support from the medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, the World Health Organisation and the Rockefeller Foundation.


A more detailed description about the Leicester-China collaboration follows:

The Leicester-Chinese team is studying the microstructure, biochemistry and genetics of the materno-fetal interaction.

At the biochemical level, the local control of the genes affecting the expression of enzymes (known as proteases) is of central importance throughout pregnancy. In a healthy pregnancy a sophisticated system appears to allow the tiny vulnerable embryo to burrow (using enzyme digestion) into the mother’s uterus to just the right depth eroding substantial amounts of maternal tissue without destroying its own tiny and potentially vulnerable tissue or essential components on the maternal side

Later during the birth process it allows the neat separation of the afterbirth without long-term damage to the wall of the uterus, ripens the cervix and helps the waters to break by weakening the fetal membranes.

A "local endocrine system" of cells secreting and responding to short range biochemical messages that change over time seems to be required for this system to operate. Elements of the control system are potential targets for new contraceptives or are potential "weak links" in infertile women or in women having difficulty carrying a child to term. Thus, blocking certain inter-actions or supporting them will offer opportunities for improving reproductive health

This is an active area world wide and this summer the Leicester-Chinese team are presenting data at meetings in Glasgow, Schladming Austria, Rome and Washington State USA.

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Information supplied by: Barbara Whiteman
Last updated: 08 September 1999 14:55
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