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Scientists discover non-invasive test for embryo quality

The method has been shown to be able to detect particles of genetic material that are left behind in the liquid media young embryos are grown in

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Scientists have uncovered a non-invasive approach that can be used to better predict the quality of lab-grown embryos.

IVF has been a source of hope for many people struggling to conceive. However, the overall live birth rate after IVF treatment is only 20-40 per cent in women under 40 in the US.

One of the reasons for this low success rate is that it is difficult for doctors to determine which lab-grown embryos are most likely to result in a successful pregnancy, so many people seeking IVF have to go through multiple rounds of treatment.

The new method, discovered by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, has been shown to be able to detect small particles of genetic material, called exRNAs, that are left behind in the liquid media young embryos are grown in.

“Unfortunately, IVF success still involves a big element of chance, but that’s something we’re hoping our research can change,” explained co-senior author H. Irene Su, professor in the department of obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive sciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and a reproductive endocrinologist at UC San Diego Health.

“Right now, the best way we have to predict embryo outcome involves looking at embryos and measuring morphological characteristics or taking some cells from the embryo to look at genetic makeup, both of which have limitations.”

Instead of relying on either visual characteristics or biopsies of embryos, the new approach works more like a blood test by detecting molecules in a sample of fluid.

However, instead of that sample coming from the embryos themselves, the researchers are able to analyse embryos by studying the leftover medium used to grow them. This means that the new approach is non-invasive and involves no extra steps on the part of the patient.

“IVF is challenging enough as it is, so it was extremely important to us that our research didn’t interfere with this already-delicate process,” said Su.

“What we’ve done is more akin to looking at what’s left behind at an archeological site to help us learn more about who lived there and what they did.”

While DNA contains all the instructions our cells need to develop and function, they also need RNA, another type of genetic material, to help carry out these instructions. Most RNA is found inside of cells, but some RNA molecules, called exRNAs, are released by the cell into their surroundings while the cell completes its various functions.

Scientists are still unsure of the precise biological function of exRNAs, but their discovery in the early 2000s has opened up new avenues in biomedical research and medicine, offering insights into cell-to-cell communication and disease processes, as well as potential diagnostic and therapeutic applications.

“It’s really only in the last decade that we have started to uncover the uses for exRNAs and there could be countless other applications we haven’t yet discovered,” said co-senior author Sheng Zhong, PhD, professor in the department of bioengineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “This is just the beginning.”

By analysing the exRNA in culture media for embryos at five different developmental stages, the researchers identified about 4,000 different exRNA molecules per stage. These exRNAs correspond to the many different genes that are expressed in embryos at each developmental stage.

“We were surprised by how many exRNAs were produced so early in embryonic development, and how much of that activity we could detect using such a minute sample,” said Zhong.

“This is an approach where we can analyse a sample from outside a cell and gain an incredible amount of insight into what’s happening inside it.”

The researchers used the data to train a machine learning model to predict the embryo’s morphology based on the exRNAs it produced. They found that their model was able to replicate the morphological measurements used in current embryo tests, suggesting exRNAs were a promising predictor of embryo quality.

Still, they caution that it will take additional research to confirm whether their test can be used directly to predict positive IVF outcomes, such as successful births.

Su said: “We have data connecting healthy morphology to positive IVF outcomes and now we’ve seen that exRNAs can be used to predict good morphology, but we still need to draw that final line before our test will be ready for primetime.

“Once that work is done, we hope this will make the overall process of IVF simpler, more efficient, and ultimately less of an ordeal for the families seeking this treatment.”

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Menopause start-up bags US$60m in funding

Midi Health aims to expand access to insurance-covered care for women in midlife and beyond

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Midi Health Series B round investors and founders, pictured from left: GV Executive venture partner Cathy Friedman, Midi Health co-founder Kathleen Jordan, Midi Health co-founder Jill Herzig, Felicis Ventures general partner Victoria Treyger, Operator Collective founder Mallun Yen, Midi Health co-founder Sharon Meers, Midi Health co-founder and CEO Joanna Strober, Emerson Collective managing partner Fern Mandelbaum, SemperViren partner Allison Baum Gates, GV general partner Frederique Dame

The US menopause start-up Midi Health has secured US$60m in funding, bringing the company’s total funding raised to date to US$100m.

The funding round was led by Emerson Collective, with support from additional investors, including GV (Google Ventures), Memorial Hermann, SemperVirens, Felicis, Icon Ventures, Black Angel Group, Gingerbread Capital, Able Partners, G9 and Operator Collective.

They joined a syndicate of primarily female-led investors including F7, Steel Sky Ventures, Avestria, Muse Capital, 1843 Capital, Anne WojcickiSusan Wojcicki, and K50 Ventures.

Founded with a mission to close this care gap, Midi is now the fastest-growing virtual clinic focused on treating women in perimenopause and menopause.

The California start-up, which expanded to all 50 states in November, aims to help women navigating midlife hormonal changes.

The company provides patients with care plans that include hormonal and non-hormonal medications, supplements and lifestyle coaching and has partnerships with major healthcare systems, such as Memorial Hermann and benefits platforms, such as Progyny and Cleo.

The additional investment round is hoped to help Midi expand insurance coverage, hire and upskill an additional 150 clinicians, diversify service lines, amplify the conversation around women’s health and scale to care for over one million women per year by 2029.

“We started Midi with just one specific focus: helping women access world-class, expert perimenopause and menopause care, covered by insurance, and we have been at the forefront of delivering on that promise,” Joanna Strober, CEO and co-founder of Midi, explained.

“But what we have also learned is that addressing the health concerns of women in midlife is more complex than simply treating hot flashes and prescribing hormone replacement therapy.

“Midi takes a multi-symptom, holistic approach to care designed to help women live their best, most productive and fulfilling lives—whether that involves medication, lifestyle coaching, natural supplements, or other support.

“Our goal now is to expand services and scope to continue this comprehensive, personalised care far beyond menopause.”

Women spend more than a third of their lives in perimenopause or menopause, with more than one billion women globally expected to be in these life stages by 2030.

Upwards of 85 per cent of women will experience menopausal symptoms that can negatively impact their productivity and quality of life, yet 75 per cent of women who seek care for these symptoms do not receive any treatment.

The primary reason is that only about one in five OB/GYNs, and even fewer primary care physicians, receive specialised menopause education or training.

“Historically, women’s healthcare has been neglected, with perimenopause and menopause having significant unmet needs,” said Fern Mandelbaum of Emerson Collective.

“Midi is providing expert, empathetic care coupled with comprehensive insurance coverage, finally addressing this gap and ensuring that all women receive the support they need and deserve.”

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Start-up launches London Underground campaign to break down period stigma

The two-week campaign seeks to challenge societal taboos surrounding menstrual health

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The Irish women’s health start-up Riley has launched an ad campaign on the London Underground to “take the fear out of periods”.

Riley, an eco-friendly period product subscription service, aims to take action against period poverty and democratise access to period products.

The company seeks to encourage the introduction of menstrual health policies and foster a workplace where discussions around periods are normalised.

Its two-week London Underground campaign, which coincides with the opening of its first office in London, is hoped to help destigmatise periods and normalise conversations around menstrual health.

“The idea behind this campaign comes from the fact that free period care in the office is often seen as an employee perk or a ‘nice to have’, when it should actually be an essential offering in every office,” Meaghan Droney, eCommerce manager at Riley, told Femtech World.

“Our aim with this campaign is to flip those current mindsets and get people to change their attitudes towards period care in the workplace.

“With 79 per cent of menstruators feeling unsupported in relation to their periods at work, this oversight is clearly fundamentally unfair and it’s time for change.

“We’re encouraging any and all businesses to get in touch with us so we can support them in introducing menstrual policies and free period care in their workplace to empower all employees, no matter their gender, to thrive and feel valued at work.”

Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that only 12 per cent of UK companies provide support for menstruation and menstrual health, despite 85 per cent of women experiencing stress or anxiety when managing their period at work.

Data suggests that half of the women who take absence because of their menstrual cycle feel unable to tell their manager, underscoring the deep-rooted stigma around periods.

Fiona Parfrey, co-founder of Riley, said: “Access to safe and high-quality sustainable period care products not only demonstrates a commitment to employee welfare but also fosters a culture of empathy, equality, and respect, ultimately contributing to a more engaged and empowered workforce.

“Menstrual policies and free period care are a fundamental necessity for every individual in the workplace. It’s about ensuring that employees have the resources they need to maintain their wellbeing and productivity without interruption.”

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Singapore-based fertility centre sets up grant for couples struggling to conceive

This grant aims to support eligible Singaporean couples facing financial and family planning challenges

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A Singapore-based fertility centre is to set up a grant to support couples struggling to conceive.

Virtus Fertility Centre Singapore (VFCS) announced that it would set up a grant to support aspiring parents on their IVF journey.

The initial grant is set for at $50,000 SGD and, depending on the take-up rate over the next 12 fiscal months, VFCS plans to increase the pool to benefit more couples in the subsequent years.

The grant will cover the main costs associated with IVF treatments and procedures, including embryo retrieval and transfer, laboratory services and embryo prep. It will also be applicable to fresh and frozen egg transfers.

As grant recipients, their samples will similarly be given a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, a service VFCS provides for all its patients. It locks the patient’s identity with the respective sample. The RFID identifies gametes—eggs, sperms, or embryos—at every stage of the IVF treatment.

According to VFCS, the grant will also include access to counselling services and wellness resources.

“I’ve witnessed firsthand the emotional toll and occasional frustration that infertility can take on individuals and couples, especially for some who are still young and healthy,” said Dr Roland Chieng, medical director at VFCS.

“The common deterrent of going for fertility treatment is always associated with the cost, more so in a private care setting where their only source of funds is through Medisave.

“By alleviating their financial concerns, we hope ReadyBaby Fertility Grant empowers patients to approach their IVF journey, focusing on their clinical needs and working towards a healthy pregnancy and less on financials.

“With access to the necessary treatments and support, patients can embark on their path to parenthood with renewed confidence, knowing they have the clinical resources and guidance they need to navigate this journey,” he added.

Tim Kwan, VFCS’s managing director, said: “We believe every couple deserves the opportunity to experience the profound joy of parenthood.

“With the ReadyBaby Fertility Grant, we aim to support aspiring couples on their IVF journey and help them bring new life into the world.”

To be eligible for the grant, applicants must be married Singaporean couples diagnosed with medical infertility by a fertility specialist and first-time parents who have not tried IVF before.

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