Rutgers lab explores the causes and consequences of infertility
Caroline Kratka knew from an early age that she wanted to study reproductive medicine.
Her father, Scott Kratka, is a senior embryologist at a New Jersey clinic specializing in such procedures as in-vitro fertilization (IVF), where sperm and egg are combined outside the body to develop a viable embryo.
“When I was little I would come to his lab to watch him work,” said Kratka, a School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers Honors College senior. “I was fascinated.”
Even as a student at High Technology High School, a Monmouth County school that emphasizes STEM disciplines, Kratka stood out for her commitment to reproductive science. “Everyone else was doing typical science fair stuff and there I was watching embryos hatch on time-lapse videos,” she quips.
But Kratka’s connection to reproductive health runs deeper than her facility for the science. You might even say that the field is hers by birthright. She and her three siblings were born through assisted reproductive technology (ART) procedures used to treat infertility, including IVF.
“I feel very fortunate that my family had access to these procedures and were successful,” she notes. “I hope I can contribute to this field and help others who need these options.”
At Rutgers, she found a major to match her passion, and a research opportunity that has her working alongside scientists dedicated to advancing reproductive medicine. Kratka is majoring in genetics and working in the laboratory of Karen Schindler, a genetics professor studying the causes and consequences of infertility in women.
“Our major interest is in understanding how women make eggs and why that process is inherently error-prone in humans,” Schindler says. “These errors can cause early miscarriage, infertility, or developmental disorders like Down syndrome.”
The lab’s mission is carried out in two distinct approaches. Using mouse models, Schindler and her team study the mechanics of meiosis—the process of cell division that produces eggs and sperm—and why it can go awry, resulting in eggs with the wrong number of chromosomes.
The lab also analyzes the DNA of women who have undergone IVF treatment, with an eye towards identifying genes and mutations that could result in faulty eggs.
This approach, done in partnership with a New Jersey IVF clinic, could help identify biomarkers, or medical signs, to predict a patient’s potential for success in IVF or other procedures, and help design new treatments.
“A patient may have cycle after cycle of IVF treatment, producing really poor embryos that would never implant,” Schindler says. “If it was known that she had a genetic variant, then her clinician would see that her potential success rate is not what her age suggests it should be, and she could be counseled in a different direction.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 6 percent of married women ages 15 to 44 in the U.S. are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying, and about 12 percent of women ages 15 to 44 have difficulty becoming pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status.
While the emergence of ART has helped many couples have children, the procedures are expensive, time-consuming, and only partially successful. According to the CDC, the average percentage of fresh, non-donor ART cycles that led to a live birth were 31 percent in women younger than 35, dropping to as low as 3 percent in women over 44."Students are really contributing to the research program."
“If we can contribute even a little to improve the field, we can have a huge impact on families in the U.S. and worldwide,” Schindler says.
A recent study led by Schindler and published in the journal Current Biology found unusual patterns in the way three proteins regulate each other in female mouse eggs, a discovery that may have implications for female fertility and cancer biology.
Schindler says the genetics department is ideal for students like Kratka because the major requires significant research from undergraduates.
“They are in the lab during the school year and full-time during the summer,” she says. “They are really contributing to the research program and that gives them a clearer picture of how research and medicine tie together.”
Kratka is leaning towards pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. program that would offer ample opportunity for both research and clinical applications. “I love looking at embryos and oocytes under the microscope,” she explains. “That is the science aspect and I get pure joy from doing that.”
As for the clinical side, she notes how her father receives notes from patients with pictures of their babies.
“I’ve shadowed other fields and have never seen that joy anywhere else,” she says.