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BACKGROUND: Oocyte activation deficiency (OAD) is attributed to the majority of cases underlying failure of ICSI cycles, the standard treatment for male factor infertility. Oocyte activation encompasses a series of concerted events, triggered by sperm-specific phospholipase C zeta (PLCζ), which elicits increases in free cytoplasmic calcium (Ca2+) in spatially and temporally specific oscillations. Defects in this specific pattern of Ca2+ release are directly attributable to most cases of OAD. Ca2+ release can be clinically mediated via assisted oocyte activation (AOA), a combination of mechanical, electrical and/or chemical stimuli which artificially promote an increase in the levels of intra-cytoplasmic Ca2+. However, concerns regarding safety and efficacy underlie potential risks that must be addressed before such methods can be safely widely used. OBJECTIVE AND RATIONALE: Recent advances in current AOA techniques warrant a review of the safety and efficacy of these practices, to determine the extent to which AOA may be implemented in the clinic. Importantly, the primary challenges to obtaining data on the safety and efficacy of AOA must be determined. Such questions require urgent attention before widespread clinical utilization of such protocols can be advocated. SEARCH METHODS: A literature review was performed using databases including PubMed, Web of Science, Medline, etc. using AOA, OAD, calcium ionophores, ICSI, PLCζ, oocyte activation, failed fertilization and fertilization failure as keywords. Relevant articles published until June 2019 were analysed and included in the review, with an emphasis on studies assessing large-scale efficacy and safety. OUTCOMES: Contradictory studies on the safety and efficacy of AOA do not yet allow for the establishment of AOA as standard practice in the clinic. Heterogeneity in study methodology, inconsistent sample inclusion criteria, non-standardized outcome assessments, restricted sample size and animal model limitations render AOA strictly experimental. The main scientific concern impeding AOA utilization in the clinic is the non-physiological method of Ca2+ release mediated by most AOA agents, coupled with a lack of holistic understanding regarding the physiological mechanism(s) underlying Ca2+ release at oocyte activation. LIMITATIONS REASONS FOR CAUTION: The number of studies with clinical relevance using AOA remains significantly low. A much wider range of studies examining outcomes using multiple AOA agents are required. WIDER IMPLICATIONS: In addition to addressing the five main challenges of studies assessing AOA safety and efficacy, more standardized, large-scale, multi-centre studies of AOA, as well as long-term follow-up studies of children born from AOA, would provide evidence for establishing AOA as a treatment for infertility. The delivery of an activating agent that can more accurately recapitulate physiological fertilization, such as recombinant PLCζ, is a promising prospect for the future of AOA. Further to PLCζ, many other avenues of physiological oocyte activation also require urgent investigation to assess other potential physiological avenues of AOA. STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTERESTS: D.G. was supported by Stanford University's Bing Overseas Study Program. J.K. was supported by a Healthcare Research Fellowship Award (HF-14-16) made by Health and Care Research Wales (HCRW), alongside a National Science, Technology, and Innovation plan (NSTIP) project grant (15-MED4186-20) awarded by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST). The authors have no competing interests to declare.

Original publication




Journal article


Hum Reprod Open

Publication Date





ICSI, assisted oocyte activation (AOA), calcium, calcium ionophores, male infertility, oocyte, oocyte activation, oocyte activation deficiency (OAD), phospholipase C zeta (PLCζ), sperm