A new study led by UCLA biologist could help explain certain causes of infertility and spontaneous miscarriage.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Cell Biology, has uncovered information about a key stage that human embryonic cells must pass through just before an embryo implants.

Infertility affects about 10 percent of the U.S. population, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. end in miscarriage. In many cases, the causes of infertility and miscarriage are unknown

The research team was led by Amander Clark, a UCLA professor of molecular cell and developmental biology. The team analyzed cells within the early embryo; these cells are pluripotent, meaning that they can turn into any cell within the human body, officials said.

“For many years, researchers thought that human pluripotency was a single state,” Clark said. “However, over the past three years, the field has discovered that human pluripotency involves at least two major states, and as embryos grow the stem cells pass through these two different states of pluripotency on the way to the embryo establishing a pregnancy.”

After a human embryo is fertilized and before it implants in the uterine lining, cells in the embryo are in a very immature state of pluripotency called the “naive” state. Little is known about the naive state, but scientists believe that if embryonic cells cannot first enter this state, the embryo is not viable and a miscarriage would occur, according to Clark.

“Although no one knows exactly why the naive state of pluripotency exists, or what helps naive cells stay in that state for a period of time, it could be to provide a protective mechanism that prevents the embryonic cells from differentiating too quickly, which would ensure the timing of implantation is right,” Clark said.

“Our findings are relevant to the natural process of human development because they match up with what we see in human pre-implantation embryos. This provides new information about a time in the lifecycle that we know little about. Fundamental knowledge like this could help better predict infertility or embryo quality.”

The study also could lead to important advances in an area of medicine that historically has been underfunded and underappreciated in part because the subject of infertility is sometimes seen as taboo and because it doesn’t attract attention such as deadly diseases like cancer, said Clark.

“People who experience infertility and miscarriage may tell close friends or family, but too often, these issues are not discussed,” Clark said. “But infertility is a significant health concern. It deserves our attention, and we as a society need to be more open about it.”

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