Discovery lab for Reproductive and Child Health

Families are built in a variety of ways. Some people start families relatively easily, whereas others are not able to do so and this can be debilitating. Having the power to decide the number and spacing of children in a family is a human right, and also a core tenant of the reproductive justice movement. The science of reproduction is complicated as many different organs and cell types are involved in reproductive health and having a baby. Furthermore, human reproduction is very inefficient, with current World Health Organization estimates for the global prevalence of lifetime infertility at 17.4%. For those who suffer from infertility, biomedical research can help understand this disease and provide answers for starting or extending a family.  For a person to reversibly manage their own fertility, contraception is a key option, however not all available contraceptive methods are suitable to all people, and in some cases are incompatible with underlying health conditions. Therefore, in order to understand key scientific issues in reproductive health and medicine the students, postdoctoral fellows, research faculty and staff in the Clark Lab are highly trained in the science of stem cell biology, gene editing, genomics and mouse modeling. Utilizing these state-of-the-art approaches, our lab identifies new genes and pathways involved in human fertility as well as developing next generation approaches to restoring or managing fertility using stem cells. Continue reading below for additional details on projects currently available in the lab.

Project 1: Identifying Genes involved in Human Fertility and Germ Cell Development

In our lab, we study reproductive cells called germ cells. This cell lineage is primarily responsible for differentiating into eggs or sperm (gametes) in the adult ovary or testis. A person without germ cells will receive a diagnosis of infertility and will be unable to have a baby without medical intervention and the use of donor eggs or sperm. Therefore, understanding the cell and molecular basis of germ cell formation can help provide answers to individuals or couples who receive a diagnosis of infertility, and help them make informed choices as to the next steps in their family building journey.

The Clark laboratory publishes extensively on the cell and molecular basis of human reproduction with a focus on characterizing the key stages of germ cell formation leading to healthy gametes. To achieve this, we use various genomic technologies including at analysis of thousands of cells at a single cell level using next generation sequencing, laboratory animal modeling and pluripotent stem cells.

In our pluripotent stem cell work, we use human embryonic stem cells and human induced pluripotent stem cells consented specifically for fertility and infertility research. The pluripotent stem cell cell lines routinely used in our lab have been generated by our group over the last fifteen years using state of the art derivation and reprogramming procedures. Using these pluripotent stem cell lines, we routinely differentiate the stem cells into germ cells and use gene editing approaches to model the role of genes and pathways in human germ cell formation towards understanding causes of infertility. Using human stem cells is important because other species do not recapitulate all the cell and molecular events involved in human germ cell development.

Project 2: Identifying Non-Hormonal Contraceptives to Increase Family Planning Choices

Hormonal birth control when first released on the market in the 1960's empowered individuals and couples to manage the number and spacing of children in their families. However hormonal-based contraceptives have undesired side-effects and in some cases hormonal-based contraception is not an option due to underlying health concerns. This necessitates the development of non-hormonal alternatives that provide more options to people

The Gates Foundation is currently supporting the Ovarian Contraceptive Discovery Initiative to develop new non-hormonal contraceptives that can expand contraceptive choices for women.

As part of this initiative which is lead by Northwestern University, the Clark Lab at UCLA is funded to build ovarian follicles in the laboratory using stem-cell-based organoids.