Microbial colonisation of human follicular fluid and adverse in vitro fertilisation outcomes

Pelzer, Elise Sarah (2011) Microbial colonisation of human follicular fluid and adverse in vitro fertilisation outcomes. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


This study, investigating 263 women undergoing trans-vaginal oocyte retrieval for in vitro fertilisation (IVF) found that microorganisms colonising follicular fluid contributed to adverse IVF (pre-implantation) and pregnancy (post-implantation) outcomes including poor quality embryos, failed pregnancy and early pregnancy loss (< 37 weeks gestation). Some microorganisms also showed in vitro growth patterns in liquid media that appeared to be enhanced by the hormonal stimulation protocol used for oocyte retrieval. Elaborated cytokines within follicular fluid were also associated with adverse IVF outcomes.

This study is imperative because infertility affects 16% of the human population and the numbers of couples needing assistance continues to increase. Despite significant improvements in the technical aspects of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), the live birth rate has not increased proportionally. Overt genital tract infection has been associated with both infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes (including miscarriage and preterm birth) as a direct result of the infection or the host response to it. Importantly, once inflammation had become established, medical treatment often failed to prevent these significant adverse outcomes. Current evaluations of fertility focus on the ovary as a site of steroid hormone production and ovulation. However, infertility as a result of subclinical colonisation of the ovary has not been reported. Furthermore, identification of the microorganisms present in follicular fluid and the local cytokine profile may provide clinicians with an early indication of the prognosis for IVF treatment in infertile couples, thus allowing antimicrobial treatment and/or counselling about possible IVF failure. During an IVF cycle, multiple oocytes undergo maturation in vivo in response to hormonal hyperstimulation. Oocytes for in vitro insemination are collected trans-vaginally. The follicular fluid that bathes the maturing oocyte in vivo, usually is discarded as part of the IVF procedure, but provides a unique opportunity to investigate microbial causes of adverse IVF outcomes. Some previous studies have identified follicular fluid markers that predict IVF pregnancy outcomes. However, there have not been any detailed microbiological studies of follicular fluid.

For this current study, paired follicular fluid and vaginal secretion samples were collected from women undergoing IVF cycles to determine whether microorganisms in follicular fluid were associated with adverse IVF outcomes. Microorganisms in follicular fluid were regarded as either "colonisers" or "contaminants"; colonisers, if they were unique to the follicular fluid sample, and contaminants if the same microorganisms were detected in the vaginal and follicular fluid samples indicating that the follicular fluid was merely contaminated during the oocyte retrieval process. Quite unexpectedly, by these criteria, we found that follicular fluid from approximately 30% of all subjects was colonised with bacteria. Fertile and infertile women with colonised follicular fluid had decreased embryo transfer rates and decreased pregnancy rates compared to women with contaminated follicular fluids. The observation that follicular fluid was not always sterile, but contained a diverse range of microorganisms, is novel. Many of the microorganisms we detected in follicular fluid are known opportunistic pathogens that have been detected in upper genital tract infections and are associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes. Bacteria were able to survive for at least 28 weeks in vitro, in cultures of follicular fluid. Within 10 days of establishing these in vitro cultures, several species (Lactobacillus spp., Bifidobacterium spp., Propionibacterium spp., Streptococcus spp. and Salmonella entericus) had formed biofilms. Biofilms play a major role in microbial pathogenicity and persistence. The propensity of microbial species to form biofilms in follicular fluid suggests that successful treatment of these infections with antimicrobials may be difficult.

Bifidobacterium spp. grew, in liquid media, only if concentrations of oestradiol and progesterone were similar to those achieved in vivo during an IVF cycle. In contrast, the growth of Streptococcus agalactiae and Escherichia coli was inhibited or abolished by the addition of these hormones to culture medium. These data suggest that the likelihood of microorganisms colonising follicular fluid and the species of bacteria involved is influenced by the stage of the menstrual cycle and, in the case of IVF, the nature and dose of steroid hormones administered for the maturation of multiple oocytes in vivo. Our findings indicate that the elevated levels of steroid hormones during an IVF cycle may influence the microbial growth within follicular fluid, suggesting that the treatment itself will impact on the microflora present in the female upper genital tract during pre-conception and early post-conception phases of the cycle.

The effect of the host immune response on colonising bacteria and on the outcomes of IVF also was investigated. White blood cells reportedly compose between 5% and 15% of the cell population in follicular fluid. The follicular membrane is semi-permeable and cells are actively recruited as part of the normal menstrual cycle and in response to microorganisms. A previous study investigated follicular fluid cytokines from infertile women and fertile oocyte donors undergoing IVF, and concluded that there were no significant differences in the cytokine concentrations between the two groups. However, other studies have reported differences in the follicular fluid cytokine levels associated with infertile women with endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome. In this study, elevated levels of interleukin (IL)-1 á, IL-1 â and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in vaginal fluid were associated with successful fertilisation, which may be useful marker for successful fertilisation outcomes for women trying to conceive naturally or prior to oocyte retrieval for IVF. Elevated levels of IL-6, IL-12p40, granulocyte colony stimulating factor (GCSF) and interferon-gamma (IFN ã) in follicular fluid were associated with successful embryo transfer.

Elevated levels of pro-inflammatory IL-18 and decreased levels of anti-inflammatory IL-10 were identified in follicular fluid from women with idiopathic infertility. Successful fertilisation and implantation is dependent on a controlled pro-inflammatory environment, involving active recruitment of pro-inflammatory mediators to the genital tract as part of the menstrual cycle and early pregnancy. However, ongoing pregnancy requires an enhanced anti-inflammatory environment to ensure that the maternal immune system does not reject the semi-allergenic foetus. The pro-inflammatory skew in the follicular fluid of women with idiopathic infertility, correlates with normal rates of fertilisation, embryo discard and embryo transfer, observed for this cohort, which were similar to the outcomes observed for fertile women. However, their pregnancy rate was reduced compared to fertile women. An altered local immune response in follicular fluid may provide a means of explaining infertility in this cohort, previously defined as 'idiopathic'.

This study has found that microorganisms colonising follicular fluid may have contributed to adverse IVF and pregnancy outcomes. Follicular fluid bathes the cumulus oocyte complex during the in vivo maturation process, and microorganisms in the fluid, their metabolic products or the local immune response to these microorganisms may result in damage to the oocytes, degradation of the cumulus or contamination of the IVF culture system. Previous studies that have discounted bacterial contamination of follicular fluid as a cause of adverse IVF outcomes failed to distinguish between bacteria that were introduced into the follicular fluid at the time of trans-vaginal oocyte retrieval and those that colonised the follicular fluid. Those bacteria that had colonised the fluid may have had time to form biofilms and to elicit a local immune response. Failure to draw this distinction has previously prevented consideration of bacterial colonisation of follicular fluid as a cause of adverse IVF outcomes.

Several observations arising from this study are of significance to IVF programs. Follicular fluid is not always sterile and colonisation of follicular fluid is a cause of adverse IVF and pregnancy outcomes. Hormonal stimulation associated with IVF may influence whether follicular fluid is colonised and enhance the growth of specific species of bacteria within follicular fluid. Bacteria in follicular fluid may form biofilms and literature has reported that this may influence their susceptibility to antibiotics. Monitoring the levels of selected cytokines within vaginal secretions may inform fertilisation outcomes. This study has identified novel factors contributing to adverse IVF outcomes and that are most likely to affect also natural conception outcomes. Early intervention, possibly using antimicrobial or immunological therapies may reduce the need for ART and improve reproductive health outcomes for all women.

Impact and interest:

Citation counts are sourced monthly from Scopus and Web of Science® citation databases.

These databases contain citations from different subsets of available publications and different time periods and thus the citation count from each is usually different. Some works are not in either database and no count is displayed. Scopus includes citations from articles published in 1996 onwards, and Web of Science® generally from 1980 onwards.

Citations counts from the Google Scholar™ indexing service can be viewed at the linked Google Scholar™ search.

Full-text downloads:

936 since deposited on 13 Mar 2012
91 in the past twelve months

Full-text downloads displays the total number of times this work’s files (e.g., a PDF) have been downloaded from QUT ePrints as well as the number of downloads in the previous 365 days. The count includes downloads for all files if a work has more than one.

ID Code: 49122
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Knox, Christine & Aaskov, John
Keywords: assisted reproductive technology (ART), follicular fluid, upper genital tract, lower genital tract, steroid hormones, oestradiol, progesterone, biofilm, Lactobacillus species, trans-vaginal oocyte retrieval, semen, washed semen, cytokines, microorganisms, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, genital tract infection, genital tract colonisation or contamination, male factor infertility, fertilisation, embryo transfer, pregnancy, in vitro fertilisation (IVF)
Divisions: Past > Schools > Cell & Molecular Biosciences
Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Science and Technology
Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 13 Mar 2012 04:34
Last Modified: 13 Mar 2012 04:37

Export: EndNote | Dublin Core | BibTeX

Repository Staff Only: item control page