Dr Kylie Dunning. Credit: CNBP

A passion for helping hopeful parents facing fertility issues has driven Dr Kylie Dunning in her pioneering research into IVF.

Dr Kylie Dunning is motivated by creating a world where fewer couples struggle with infertility, an often invisible and stigmatised health challenge faced by more than 15% of Australian couples.

With personal experience of the challenges and heartache of starting a family, Dr Dunning is paving the way for patients to experience better and more effective fertility care, through the creation of exciting new technologies that will spearhead a revolution in IVF practices.

One of the greatest challenges for IVF clinics is identifying which embryos are suitable for transfer back into the patient’s womb. Overcoming this challenge would increase the number of patients taking home a baby. The current gold standard technologies include taking a small number of cells from the embryo (known as biopsy), an invasive procedure, and then sequencing the DNA to confirm that the embryo has the predicted number of chromosomes, a process known as pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS).

As well as being invasive, this procedure is notoriously inaccurate.

‘We know that aneuploidy, or the presence of cells with a divergent number of chromosomes, is quite common in human embryos. We also know they’re often mosaic, meaning the embryo has some normal cells, and some aneuploid cells. This reduces the chances of a successful pregnancy,’ she says.

New technology being developed by Dr Dunning and her team overcomes the need for a cell biopsy, instead using light to take a non-invasive ‘molecular photo’ to assess the health of the embryo.

‘Cross-fertilisation of ideas from different scientific disciplines will create solutions which we could never have imagined were possible.’

Dr Dunning’s revolutionary procedure involves shining very gentle doses of light upon an embryo, and using the scattered light that comes back to reveal the intricacies of its biochemistry. Separately, an optical fibre, the thickness of a human hair, delivers and collects light to measure pH levels in the fluid surrounding the embryo. Together, these measurements provide an insight into the ‘health’ of an embryo.

Currently at the pre-clinical stage, these discoveries will, Dr Dunning hopes, one day help choose the best embryos for transfer, reducing costs and heartache for hopeful parents.

Excitingly, the same procedures also extend into the realm of IVF in agriculture. This will lead to improved farming practices ensuring food availability and affordability on a global scale.

In recognition of this work, Dr Dunning received the Newcastle Reproduction Emerging Research Leader Award in 2019, the Healthy Development Adelaide Women’s Excellence in Research Award in 2020 and a Mid-Career Fellowship from the Hospital Research Foundation, the latter of which will support her research for the next 3 years.

Dr Dunning is a former member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP), and is based at the University of Adelaide. She attributes her success to the encouragement of mentors, a fantastic team of young scientists around her, and the nurturing and diverse environment of the CNBP.

‘Being surrounded by researchers from the disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics has allowed me to think creatively about potential technological solutions for the IVF clinic,’ Dr Dunning says.

‘Cross-fertilisation of ideas from different scientific disciplines will create solutions which we could never have imagined were possible.’

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