26 March 2019
A technique to produce eggs from ovarian tissue in the lab may offer hope for critically endangered species like the Northern White Rhino that have passed what is currently considered the point of no return.
A research team at the University of Oxford has begun work to find a new way of saving the Northern White Rhino by using tissue taken from animal ovaries to produce potentially large numbers of eggs in a laboratory setting.
Led by Dr Suzannah Williams, researchers working on the Rhino Fertility Project will refine the method that she has successfully demonstrated in mice. Rhino tissue is scarce and precious - however, ovarian tissue has been obtained by Dr Williams from a euthanased Southern White Rhino which provides the foundation for the work.
The research is being funded by Mr André Hoffmann, via Fondation Hoffmann.
The desperate plight of the Northern White Rhino has highlighted the precarious situation of many endangered species around the world. Previous breeding programmes had been successful in raising their numbers but the animals were destroyed by poachers. The world’s last remaining male died in 2018 leaving just two female rhinos, Najin and her daughter Fatu, neither of which are capable of producing offspring naturally.
Although sperm has been saved by conservationists from male Northern White Rhinos, any successfully fertilised eggs would have to be raised in a surrogate mother – most likely a Southern White Rhino, one of their closest living relatives.
Dr Suzannah Williams of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Women's & Reproductive Health, said: ‘With the death of the last male, Sudan, the Northern White Rhino has passed the point where it can be saved naturally and is a shade away from extinction. This will add yet another species to the list of those wiped out by humans.
‘What is exciting about this research is that it could enable us to pull critically endangered species back from the brink by utilising ovarian tissue from old or injured animals to produce offspring.
‘Once genetic variation within a population has been lost, it is lost forever. This makes it important for us to be able to maintain as many breeding individuals as possible in any conservation programme, to maximise genetic diversity of future populations. This will be a huge buffer against disease and ill health in the long-term, and give the new herds better genetic ability to adapt to changing environments in the future.’
Dr Suzannah Williams added: ‘Some researchers are exploring the possibility of using the remaining Northern White Rhino sperm to cross-breed with Southern White Rhinos to create a hybrid population, but I think we should focus on preserving the Northern White Rhino as the unique species it is, and this project enables us to move directly towards this goal.
‘If successful, this technique would be a powerful tool in the global effort to conserve endangered species.’
For further information, please contact:
Chris McIntyre in the University of Oxford press office at firstname.lastname@example.org or on+44 (0)1865 270 046
Notes to editors:
About André Hoffmann
André Hoffmann is the Vice Chairman of Roche Holding, Switzerland and serves on the board of the fully owned subsidiary Genentech Inc. in California (USA).
Alongside his non-executive roles in the family business, Mr. Hoffmann has a distinguished cursus in nature conservation and sustainability. He has served among others on the board of WWF International as Vice-President.
He is the President of Fondation MAVA and of Fondation Tour du Valat in the Camargue, France.
Mr Hoffmann has joined the Board of SystemIQ to help positively disrupt critical economic systems; the Board of Trustees of the World Economic Forum, as well as of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. He has also been instrumental in establishing the Hoffmann Global Institute in Business and Society (HGIBS) at INSEAD, his Alma mater.
Oxford University’s Medical Sciences Division is one of the largest biomedical research centres in Europe, with over 2,500 people involved in research and more than 2,800 students. The University is rated the best in the world for medicine and life sciences, and it is home to the UK’s top-ranked medical school. It has one of the largest clinical trial portfolios in the UK and great expertise in taking discoveries from the lab into the clinic. Partnerships with the local NHS Trusts enable patients to benefit from close links between medical research and healthcare delivery.
Dr Suzannah Williams (BSc Zoology, University of Aberdeen) is a Principal Investigator and Research Group Leader in the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health at the University of Oxford where she has established a world-leading programme of research into understanding ovarian function in health and disease. She is also the Lead Researcher for the Ovarian Cryopreservation Research Programme at the Future Fertility Trust for which she develops and optimises fertility preservation techniques for women and girls. To facilitate these studies, Dr Williams has developed technique to grow eggs in ovarian tissue in her lab. This and her background in zoology make Dr Williams ideally placed to lead the Rhino Fertility Project at Oxford.