Prestigious research award for emerging fertility leader

26 August 2019: 

Dr Kylie Dunning is motivated by creating a world where fewer couples struggle with infertility, an often invisible and stigmatised health challenge facing more than 15% of Australian couples. With lived experience herself of the challenges of starting a family, Dr Dunning is paving the way for couples to experience better, and more effective fertility care, through the creation of exciting new technologies.

In recognition of this work, this week Dr Dunning was the recipient of the Newcastle Reproduction Emerging Research Leader Award. Judged by her peers, and awarded at the 51st Society of Reproductive Biology (SRB) Annual Meeting in Sydney, Kylie presented unpublished, hot-off-the-press results describing a revolutionary new technology which can detect the health and quality of embryos. Dr Dunning is a member of the Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics, and is based at the University of Adelaide.

“I was delighted to be selected as a candidate for the award, Dr Dunning shares “and it’s a tremendous honour to win.”

The process, which involved a written application, and culminated in an awards session of presentations from the four selected candidates was tough, and highly-competitive. In fact, the judges found it so difficult to make the final decision that they awarded the prize jointly to Kylie, and Dr Amy Winship, a fertility researcher from Victoria.

One of the greatest challenges for IVF clinics is identifying which embryos are suitable for transfer back into the mother. The current gold-standard technology requires taking a small number of cells from the embryo (known as biopsy), an invasive procedure, and then sequencing the DNA to confirm the embryo has the right number of chromosomes, a process known as pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS). The new technology Dr Dunning and her team are developing negates the need for a cell biopsy, and instead, used light to assess the health of the embryo.

“We know that aneuploidy, or the presence of cells with the wrong 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,” she said.

Aneuploidy, the term used to describe a cell which has the wrong number of chromosomes is a leading cause of infertility in Australian IVF clinics. It is well known that embryos which have the wrong number of chromosomes fail to implant, or can result in a miscarriage early in pregnancy.

There are hopes that Dunning’s revolutionary technology, currently in the pre-clinical stage, will one day help to pick the best embryos for transfer, saving money and heartache for hopeful parents.

Kylie attributes her success to encouraging mentors, a fantastic team of young scientists around her, and the supportive and diverse environment of the Centre for Nanoscale Biophotonics.

“Being surrounded by researchers from the biology, chemistry and physics disciplines has allowed us to think creatively about potential technological solutions for the IVF clinic,” Dunning says. “Diverse thinking will create solutions which we could never have imagined were possible.”

The award tops off a stellar month for Kylie, who was also awarded a Mid-Career Fellowship from The Hospital Research Foundation (THRF) last week, which will support her research for the next three years.