‘There’s still much to discover in developmental biology’
It is the dream of Professor Susana Chuva de Sousa Lopes to grow fertile egg cells in the lab. But she says there is a long way to go in her discipline until that is possible. This is the message of her inaugural lecture on 29 June 2020, the first digital inaugural lecture at Leiden University.
It isn’t always easy to discuss her field of developmental biology and reproduction says Chuva de Sousa Lopes. ‘Reproduction is an emotional topic. It affects people’s personal lives. It can be a source of joy but can also be a source of sadness or despair.’ Despite this, she enjoys discussing the matter with the public because it gives her the chance to explain what is – and above all what isn’t – already possible.
Mature egg cell
As new Professor of Developmental Biology (in Dutch), with a particular focus on human development, Chuva de Sousa Lopes’s ambition is to grow a fertile egg cell in the lab. That could offer a solution to women who have become infertile having undergone chemotherapy, for example. ‘Many people think that’s already possible, but there’s still a long way to go. What I do is very fundamental. I try to understand how an egg cell matures in the ovary and how we can mimic this in the lab.’
So much knowledge is needed for this alone, says Chuva de Sousa Lopes, that it will keep her and many generations of scientists busy. ‘We have to understand all the steps of the maturation of the egg cell and the cells around it in the ovary. When we have that recipe, we will still need the right tools to mimic this in the lab. The next step is finding out if and how such an egg cell will grow into a healthy embryo after fertilisation. It may sound disappointing but in the clinical setting this technology is still slow.’
Alongside fundamental scientific questions, her discipline involves ethical and legal questions. Take the Chinese scientist who genetically modified embryos with CRISPR-Cas. ‘We have to be careful with these and other reproductive technologies. My job is to find out whether something is scientifically possible, but we also have to ask ourselves whether we want it at all. That’s something we need to take time to consider. I also discuss this with ethicists and philosophers. It’s something that affects the next generations.’
The inaugural lecture by Susana Chuva de Sousa Lopes entitled ‘Innovative technologies in human reproduction: challenges ahead’ can be followed online on the Leiden University website from 16:00 on Monday 29 June.