Research on in vitro embryo production (IVP) in the equine is impeded by the limited availability of mature oocytes as the mare is mono ovulating and superovulation is still difficult (Dippert and Squires, 1994; Bezard et al., 1995; Alvarenga et al., 2001b). Despite recent improvement in IVM of equine oocytes, success rates of IVM in that species remain low in all culture media tested compared to other species (Goudet et al., 2000b). However, most studies have focused on the percentage of oocytes reaching the metaphase II stage (nuclear maturation) but few concentrated on the final oocyte competence as measured by its ability to develop into a blastocyst and further establish a pregnancy. Blastocyst production rate is influenced not only by culture environment but also by oocyte maturation conditions.
Under in vitro culture conditions, oxidative modifications of cell components via increased ROS represent a major culture induced stress (Johnson and Nasr-Esfahani, 1994). Anti-oxidant systems can attenuate the deleterious effects of oxidative stress by scavenging ROS (Del Corso et al., 1994). Glutathione, a tripeptide thiol, is the major non-protein sulfydryl compound in mammalian cells that plays an important role in protecting the cell from oxidative damage (Meister and Tate, 1976; Meister and Anderson, 1983). It has been suggested that GSH content in oocytes may serve as a reservoir protecting the zygote and the early embryos from oxidative damage before genomic activation and de novo GSH synthesis occur (Furnus et al., 1998; de Matos and Furnus, 2000). The addition of GSH synthesis precursors, such as cysteamine, a thiol compound, to IVM media has been shown to improve IVP in various species (Takahashi et al., 1993; de Matos et al., 1995; Grupen et al., 1995; de Matos et al., 2002a; de Matos et al., 2002b; de Matos et al., 2003; Gasparrini et al., 2003; Oyamada and Fukui, 2004; Balasubramanian and Rho, 2007; Anand et al., 2008; Singhal et al., 2008; Zhou et al., 2008). Very little information on the use of thiol compounds in the equine is available.
Conventional in vitro fertilization (IVF) has not been successful in the mare, and a repeatable IVF technique has not yet been developed (Alm et al., 2001). To overcome the limitation of conventional IVF procedures, other methods to produce embryos from oocytes, either in vivo or in vitro, have been investigated. Among these, intra cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) has permitted efficient equine in vitro blastocyst production (Galli et al., 2002; Lazzari et al., 2002; Choi et al., 2006a; Choi et al., 2006c). However, ICSI requires specific equipment and skills. Transfer of an immature oocyte into the preovulatory follicle of an inseminated recipient mare (Intra-Follicular Oocyte Transfer, IFOT) has produced embryos but the success rate was low (Hinrichs and Digiorgio, 1991). Similarly, oocyte transfer (OT) into the oviduct of an inseminated recipient mare was investigated (McKinnon et al., 1988; Carnevale, 1996; Hinrichs et al., 1997; Carnevale et al., 2001; Carnevale et al., 2003; Carnevale, 2004), and commercial programs using OT for mares with reproductive abnormalities are now available (Carnevale et al., 2001). Unfortunately, IFOT is poorly documented in the literature and reports of OT have been published by various laboratories and under various conditions, making comparisons between results and choosing among these as substitutive techniques to ICSI or embryo transfer difficult.
The first aim of the present work was to investigate if there is an influence of supplementation with 100 µM of cysteamine on conventional IVF success rate. Cumulus oocytes complexes (COCs) retrieved by transvaginal ultrasound guided aspiration were matured in vitro with or without cysteamine supplementation and were then submitted to conventional IVF using either calcium ionophore or heparin as capacitation treatment for spermatozoa. A total of 131 oocytes were evaluated for evidence of sperm penetration. Both techniques (ionophore or heparin) yielded 6% of IVF and results were similar both for the cysteamine and the control group. This success rate of IVF is low compared to some published data (Palmer et al., 1991; Dell'Aquila et al., 1996; McPartlin et al., 2009) but similar to what others reported in the literature (Choi et al., 1994; Dell'Aquila et al., 1997a). Although, it seems likely that cysteamine did not significantly improve IVF rates under our conditions, our general success rates for IVF procedures may be too low for us to conclude definitely about the effect of cysteamine.
As ICSI was not available to us, the second aim of this work was to determine what in vivo technique could best bypass the lack of an efficient conventional IVF procedure. We compared embryo production following transfer of in vivo recovered oocytes (1) into a recipient’s oviduct or (2) into her preovulatory follicle either immediately after ovum pick up or (3) after in vitro maturation. Recipients were inseminated with fresh semen of a stallion with a known normal fertility. Ten days after transfer, rates of embryos collected in excess to the number of ovulations were calculated and compared for each group. Embryo collection rates were 32.5% (13/40), 5.5% (3/55) and 12.8% (6/47) for OT, post-IVM and immediate IFOT respectively. OT significantly yielded more embryos than immediate and post-IVM IFOT did. These results show that, when ICSI is not an option, intra-oviductal oocyte transfer is to be preferred to IFOT, as an in vivo alternative, to bypass the inadequacy of conventional in vitro fertilization and to assess oocyte developmental competence.
After it was established that in comparison to IFOT, OT is the most reliable in vivo alternative to in vitro fertilization where ICSI technology is not available, this technique was used to assess the effect of cysteamine supplementation on nuclear maturation and oocyte competence. The third aim of this work was to investigate the influence of supplementation with 100 µM of cysteamine on in vitro nuclear and cytoplasmic maturation by specific DNA staining and the ability of oocytes to undergo in vivo fertilization after OT. Oocytes were collected by transvaginal ultrasound guided aspiration and matured in vitro with (cysteamine group) or without (control group) cysteamine. The nuclear stage after DNA Hoechst staining and the embryo yield following OT were used as a criterion for assessing nuclear and cytoplasmic maturation, respectively. Overall maturation rate was 52%, which is rates reported in the literature ranging from 40 to 70% in the equine (Goudet et al., 1997a; Bogh et al., 2002; Hinrichs et al., 2005; Galli et al., 2007). Nuclear maturation was not statistically different (p>0.05) between oocytes cultured with or without cysteamine (55% and 47% respectively). From 57 oocytes transferred to the oviduct in each group, the number of embryos collected was 10 (17%) in the control group and 5 in the cysteamine group (9%). Those two percentages were not statistically different (p>0.05). Contrary to the data described in other domestic species, there was no effect of cysteamine on in vitro nuclear maturation, or in vivo embryonic development under our conditions. Under our conditions, the addition of 100 µM of cysteamine to a classic culture medium does not improve equine oocyte maturation or embryonic development after OT. The same dose failed to increase GSH content in the equine (Luciano et al., 2006). However, the effect of cysteamine supplementation is highly species and concentration dependant. The inadequacy of the chosen concentration may explain that equine embryo production has not been increased by the cysteamine under our conditions as opposed to what has been observed in many other species. Alternatively, we can hypothesize that some substances present in the IVM medium can interfere with GSH synthesis. This has been suggested for FSH and estradiol (Bing et al., 2001) and, although our maturation medium is not supplemented with gonadotropins or estradiol, factors contained in fetal calf serum or EGF might also have an effect on GSH synthesis.
Considering its beneficial effects in many other species, supplementation with cysteamine to different IVM media should be further investigated in the equine. Ideally combining different concentrations and ICSI or OT in order to determine an optimal concentration and its effects on oocyte developmental competence.