Graduate student hopes to contribute to developing novel fertility preservation method for cancer patients

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Featured graphic created with courtesy photo.

Having just completed her first semester as a master’s student in the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) medical school’s Developmental and Reproductive Biology program, Marissa Miyagi was drawn to the field of assisted reproductive technology (ART) research after meeting a woman who was struggling to become pregnant. Through the use of ARTs, the woman was able to conceive and birth a child.

“Technologies such as ARTs are a source of hope for patients on days that are long and difficult as they deal with their diagnoses,” said Miyagi. “By continuing this research, I will hopefully contribute to further advancements which will help people have the family they never thought would be possible.”

Miyagi’s research, “Three-Dimensional (3D) Ovarian Tissue Culture Supported by Dextran Hydrogel with Polyethylene Glycol Crosslinker,” was named “Best Graduate Student Poster Presentation” at the 2021 Annual Biomedical Sciences and Health Disparities Symposium at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM).

When women undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat cancer, it can have a negative effect on their fertility. Hormonal treatment is essential for fertility preservation methods that involve the freezing of oocytes and embryos. However, not all females, such as pre-pubertal girls, can safely undergo hormonal treatment. A potential solution is to establish an ovarian tissue freezing method followed by in vitro follicle growth. Miyagi is currently investigating the effects of different synthetic hydrogels on follicle growth and oocyte development using an ovarian tissue culture system. She is using the 3D culture system established by the lab of Dr. Yukiko Yamazaki, JABSOM associate professor, where Miyagi was previously a volunteer student for the past 2 years.

Miyagi investigated the effects of polyethylene glycol crosslinker (PEG-Link) and RGD, an integrin binding peptide known to stimulate various cell functions. When the two mix with dextran, polymerization occurs and produces a hydrogel that acts as a scaffold to support the structure of ovarian tissue. The resulting Dextran-PEG-Link hydrogel is non-animal derived.

“We found that the Dextran-PEG-Link hydrogel successfully supported follicle growth and oocyte development, and that RGD supplementation enhanced these results,” said Miyagi. “This is significant, as using non-animal derived materials is an important step towards applying our system to humans.”

Miyagi is also passionate in the fight against cancer, and hopes to enter a career which combines research with patient care. Through clinical shadowing, she witnessed pediatric cancer patients endure countless rounds of treatment in hospitals. Yet, many of these patients seemed to be brimming with hope and positivity. Inspired by their resiliency, Miyagi said, “I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of Dr. Yamazaki’s lab, as I am able to combine my passion for helping others with my love of science and innovation. I believe our research can contribute to providing cancer patients with more options in the future.”