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Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as professionals, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility
Ola Gutzeit, Research Fellowship in Reproductive Health. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

As a reproductive health specialist in the clinical setting, Ola Gutzeit discovered a lack of effective methods for enhancing fertility care. Driven by a constant desire to seek innovative solutions for unmet clinical needs, she opted to find potential improvements by temporarily shifting away from medicine and delving into research at the Wyss Institute. Learn more about Ola and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss. 

What are you working on? 

I’m working on improving fertility, finding causes for unexplained infertility, and other related women’s health projects.  

The majority of my work is with Organ Chips. Before I arrived at the Wyss, the team developed both a Vagina Chip and a Cervix Chip. Right now, we’re looking at how the state of the vaginal microbiome affects sperm function in female reproductive tract models – and there’s a significant effect. This is huge for me as a clinician, because currently we do not screen for this when we’re evaluating infertility. We also do not treat vaginal microbiome dysbiosis, or imbalances in the microflora of the female reproductive tract, in patients with infertility.  

We have new funding from the Gates Foundation, as part of a large consortium, to develop a non-hormonal contraceptive targeting sperm using the foundational knowledge we’ve gained from looking at changes in the vaginal microbiome. We can use the Organ Chips to study how the sperm behave when exposed to new contraceptive candidates identified in this way.  

An additional project I’m working on is to preserve fertility by expanding the lifespan of ovarian tissue following transplantation using tissue engineering through a collaboration with Luba Perry from Christipher Chen’s lab.   

I have another project looking for a biomarker for ovarian torsion, which is when the ovary twists on the tissues that support it. It is a very challenging clinical problem that I saw a lot in the emergency room. 

What real-world problems do these projects solve? 

Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility
Ola spoke about her work at the 2023 Wyss Retreat, along with her colleagues Aakanksha Gulati and Anna Stejskalová. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Organ Chip work is addressing the problem of infertility. It will help us to comprehend a facet of fertility that isn’t really understood – how the vaginal microbiome affects sperm.    

The collaborative work with the Chen lab addresses the preservation of fertility. Nowadays the common practice for fertility preservation is by freezing eggs or embryos and doing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Many women do not have access to this process, and if they do, there are a host of other limitations. It’s expensive and it’s not a high-yield process. It’s also incredibly challenging emotionally for most patients.  

Clinically, there are also patients who become infertile due to medical procedures. For example, if a young girl has cancer and undergoes chemotherapy or radiation before reaching reproductive age, we cannot freeze her eggs. Instead, we take out a piece of the ovary, freeze it, and when she’s cured, we put it back. In that case, it’s functional for just a brief duration. Without functioning ovaries, these young patients go through early menopause, which is bad for their health.  

The reason the tissue only lives for a brief duration is because of follicular loss following transplantation. So, we can address this problem using the techniques Luba has come up with to help the tissue adapt more quickly and live longer.  

We would apply this first in these cancer cases where we’re already extracting ovarian tissue, but it could eventually preserve fertility for other reasons. It’s better than existing methods because if we can preserve ovarian tissue, we can potentially have thousands of eggs instead of just the 10-20 you get with current egg retrieval methods. It also doesn’t require IVF after the transplantation. Finally, if we could preserve the endocrine function of the ovaries, it would help with hormone production and prevent that premature menopause. 

Finally, the biomarker project will help us to diagnose ovarian torsions. When a woman comes to the hospital with severe abdominal pain, we don’t have a good way of knowing if it’s an ovarian torsion without a surgical procedure called a laparoscopy. About 60% of patients who get a diagnostic laparoscopy have no torsion. So, we’re doing a lot of unnecessary surgeries, but if the condition is not treated, the ovary will die, and we have no idea how many cases we’re missing. 

What inspired you to get into this field? 

It’s hard to explain logically why I wanted to be an OB/GYN. Of course, I like that there’s a variety – there’s a surgical part, an endocrine part, and an internal medicine part. But, for me, when you really love something and you think you are meant to do it, it’s hard to quantify the reason. 

I am trying to use research to solve real, unmet clinical needs that I saw firsthand.

Ola Gutzeit
Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility
Everything Ola does at the Wyss is informed by her experiences in the clinic. Credit: Ola Gutzeit

Working in the clinic, I saw these areas where we have no solutions for patients, and it’s incredibly frustrating, so I wanted to help. We need a significant breakthrough in fertility. It’s been many years since IVF was developed, and the last major development was gonadotropin-release hormone antagonists, which help the ovaries produce more eggs. That was over 20 years ago. So, I am trying to use research to solve real, unmet clinical needs that I saw firsthand.

What continues to motivate and excite you? 

It’s seeing that the technologies we’re developing work. Things are moving in a direction that makes me believe that we can make a significant difference, and that’s motivating.   

What are some of the challenges that you face? 

Research is very challenging. Most of the experiments don’t work. But you keep doing it over and over again until you find the right way. It’s a frustrating process, but when it works, it is so rewarding.  

Why did you want to work at the Wyss? 

I heard Don Ingber give a lecture where he spoke about his belief that a diverse, interdisciplinary community of people can make a difference. He said the most important thing is to find people that are passionate about what they are doing. After hearing his talk, I thought to myself, “This is the place I want to be, surrounded by people who really care.” 

The Wyss is the place I want to be, surrounded by people who really care.

Ola Gutzeit

What is unique about the Wyss and how has that impacted your work? 

Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility
Ola appreciates the opportunities for collaboration at the Wyss. She is able to meet people from different disciplines and work together. Here, she’s pictured with Mike Super, part of the Mooney Lab, and Luba Perry, part of the Chen Lab. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The aspect of the Wyss that’s had the greatest impact on my work is the opportunities for collaboration, support, and independence we have. Of course there is a structure in place, but in general you can lead your research in the direction you think is best. That makes a huge difference in ensuring I truly believe in what I’m doing.  

How has your previous experience as a clinician shaped your approach to your work today? 

My experience as a practicing OB/GYN back at Rambam Health Care Campus in Israel has not only shaped my approach, but it is what drives everything I do. The way I look at experiments, the way I see the results, and the way I imagine the application of these technologies is 100% motivated by the experiences I had in the clinic. The way I see my career moving forward is spending at least half of my time seeing patients and the other half doing research.  

The way I look at experiments, the way I see the results, and the way I imagine the application of these technologies is 100% motivated by the experiences I had in the clinic.

Ola Gutzeit

What do you like to do most outside of work? 

Ola Gutzeit on Improving Fertility
Ola loves snowboarding, and has passed her love of the slopes on to her children. Above she’s snowboarding at Sunday River in New Hampshire. Credit: Ola Gutzeit

Since I graduated high school, I spent most winter vacations working at a mountain as a snowboard instructor – and that’s what I truly love to do. It’s so great that here you can drive for only one hour and ski or snowboard. Now, I’ve passed this along to my kids. It’s amazing to watch the three of them together making their way down the slopes.  

What something fun about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume? 

I have a TikTok Account. When I was working in the clinic, I used it to share what life was like in the hospital – and to do fun dances. Since I’ve been doing research, I use it less.  

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be? 

I would be an actress – that’s something I’ve always found interesting.  

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society? 

It’s empowering and it gives me hope that we can do better for patients in the future. 

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