Tallinn University of Technology

Selected articles

Spyridon P Deligiannis, Keiu Kask, Vijayachitra Modhukur, Nina Boskovic, Marilin Ivask, Ülle Jaakma, Pauliina Damdimopoulou, Timo Tuuri, Agne Velthut-Meikas, Andres Salumets


Ovarian tissue cryopreservation is vital for fertility preservation, yet its effect on ovarian tissue follicle survival and transcriptomic signature requires further investigation. This study delves into the effects of vitrification on tissue morphology, function, and transcriptomic changes, helping to find possibilities for vitrification protocol improvements.

Ovarian cortex from 19 bovine animals were used to conduct pre- and post-vitrification culture followed by histological assessment, immunohistochemistry, and TUNEL assay. Follicles' functionality was assessed for viability and growth within the tissue and in isolated cultures. RNA-sequencing of ovarian tissue was used to explore the transcriptomic alterations caused by vitrification.

Follicle density, cell proliferation, and DNA damage in ovarian stroma were unaffected by vitrification. However, vitrified cultured tissue exhibited reduced follicle density of primordial/primary and antral follicles, while freshly cultured tissue manifested reduction of antral follicles. Increased stromal cell proliferation and DNA damage occurred in both groups post-culture. Isolated follicles from vitrified tissue exhibited similar viability to fresh follicles until day 4, after which the survival dropped. RNA-sequencing revealed minor effects of vitrification on transcriptomic signatures, while culture induced significant gene expression changes in both groups. The altered expression of WNT and hormonal regulation pathway genes post-vitrification suggests the molecular targets for vitrification protocol refinement.

Vitrification minimally affects tissue morphology, follicle density, and transcriptomic signature post-thawing. However, culture revealed notable changes in vitrified tissue samples, including reduced follicle density, decreased isolated follicle survival, and alteration in WNT signalling and ovarian hormonal regulation pathways, highlighted them as possible limitations of the current vitrification protocol.

Bellavia A, Zou R, Björvang RD, Roos K, Sjunnesson Y, Hallberg I, Holte J, Pikki A, Lenters V, Portengen L, Koekkoek J, Lamoree M, Van Duursen M, Vermeulen R, Salumets A, Velthut-Meikas A, Damdimopoulou P.


Women of reproductive age are exposed to ubiquitous chemicals such as phthalates, parabens, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have potential endocrine disrupting properties and might affect fertility. Our objective was to investigate associations between potential endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and female fertility in two cohorts of women attending fertility clinics.

In a total population of 333 women in Sweden and Estonia, we studied the associations between chemicals and female fertility, evaluating ovarian sensitivity index (OSI) as an indicator of ovarian response, as well as clinical pregnancy and live birth from fresh and frozen embryo transfers. We measured 59 chemicals in follicular fluid samples and detected 3 phthalate metabolites, di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) metabolites, 1 paraben, and 6 PFAS in >90% of the women. Associations were evaluated using multivariable-adjusted linear or logistic regression, categorizing EDCs into quartiles of their distributions, as well as with Bayesian Kernel Machine Regression.

We observed statistically significant lower OSI at higher concentrations of the sum of DEHP metabolites in the Swedish cohort (Q4 vs Q1, β = -0.21, 95% CI: −0.38, −0.05) and methylparaben in the Estonian cohort (Q3 vs Q1, β = -0.22, 95% CI: −0.44, −0.01). Signals of potential associations were also observed at higher concentrations of PFUnDA in both the combined population (Q2 vs. Q1, β = −0.16, 95% CI -0.31, −0.02) and the Estonian population (Q2 vs. Q1, β = −0.27, 95% CI -0.45, −0.08), and for PFOA in the Estonian population (Q4 vs. Q1, β = −0.31, 95% CI -0.61, −0.01). Associations of chemicals with clinical pregnancy and live birth presented wide confidence intervals.

Within a large chemical mixture, we observed significant inverse associations levels of DEHP metabolites and methylparaben, and possibly PFUnDA and PFOA, with OSI, suggesting that these chemicals may contribute to altered ovarian function and infertility in women.

Roos K, Rooda I, Keif RS, Liivrand M, Smolander OP, Salumets A, Velthut-Meikas A.

Reduction in responsiveness to gonadotropins or hyporesponsiveness may lead to the failure of in vitro fertilization (IVF), due to a low number of retrieved oocytes. The ovarian sensitivity index (OSI) is used to reflect the ovarian responsiveness to gonadotropin stimulation before IVF. Although introduced to clinical practice already years ago, its usefulness to predict clinical outcomes requires further research. Nevertheless, pathophysiological mechanisms of ovarian hyporesponse, along with advanced maternal age and in younger women, have not been fully elucidated. Follicles consist of multiple cell types responsible for a repertoire of biological processes including responding to pituitary gonadotropins necessary for follicle growth and oocyte maturation as well as ovulation. Encouraging evidence suggests that hyporesponse could be influenced by many contributing factors, therefore, investigating the variability of ovarian follicular cell types and their gene expression in hyporesponders is highly informative for increasing their prognosis for IVF live birth. Due to advancements in single-cell analysis technologies, the role of somatic cell populations in the development of infertility of ovarian etiology can be clarified. Here, somatic cells were collected from the fluid of preovulatory ovarian follicles of patients undergoing IVF, and RNA-seq was performed to study the associations between OSI and gene expression. We identified 12 molecular pathways differentially regulated between hypo- and normoresponder patient groups (FDR<0.05) from which extracellular matrix organization, post-translational protein phosphorylation, and regulation of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF) transport and uptake by IGF Binding Proteins were regulated age-independently. We then generated single-cell RNA-seq data from matching follicles revealing 14 distinct cell clusters. Using cell cluster-specific deconvolution from the bulk RNA-seq data of 18 IVF patients we integrated the datasets as a novel approach and discovered that the abundance of three cell clusters significantly varied between hypo- and normoresponder groups suggesting their role in contributing to the deviations from normal ovarian response to gonadotropin stimulation. Our work uncovers new information regarding the differences in the follicular gene expression between hypo- and normoresponders. In addition, the current study fills the gap in understanding the inter-patient variability of cell types in human preovulatory follicles, as revealed by single-cell analysis of follicular fluid cells.

Ilmatar RoodaBirgitta Kaselt, Maria Liivrand, Olli-Pekka Smolander, Andres Salumets, Agne Velthut-Meikas

Hsa-miR-548ba expressed in ovarian granulosa cells targets PTEN and LIFR, which are essential for ovarian follicle activation and growth. The expression pattern of hsa-miR-548ba correlates with its host gene follicle-stimulating hormone receptor (FSHR), and FSH has a positive influence on hsa-miR-548ba expression. However, hsa-miR-548ba is a member of a large hsa-mir-548 family with potentially overlapping targets. The current study aims to investigate the co-expression of hsa-mir-548 family members in FSHR-positive reproductive tissues and to explore the potential co-regulation of pathways.

Rooda I, Hasan MM, Roos K, Viil J, Andronowska A, Smolander OP, Jaakma Ü, Salumets A, Fazeli A, Velthut-Meikas A

Cell-free RNAs have the potential to act as a means of gene expression regulation between cells and are therefore used as diagnostic markers describing the state of tissue environment. The origin and functions of such RNAs in human ovarian follicle, the environment of oocyte maturation, are unclear. The current study investigates the difference in the microRNA profiles of fertile women and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) patients in three compartments from the same preovulatory follicle: mural granulosa cells (MGC), cell-free follicular fluid (FF), and extracellular vesicles (EV) of the FF by small RNA sequencing. In silico analysis was used for the prediction and over-representation of targeted pathways for the detected microRNAs. PCOS follicles were distinguished from normal tissue by the differential expression of 30 microRNAs in MGC and 10 microRNAs in FF (FDR < 0.1) that commonly regulate cytokine signaling pathways. The concentration of EV-s was higher in the FF of PCOS patients (p = 0.04) containing eight differentially expressed microRNAs (p < 0.05). In addition, we present the microRNA profiles of MGC, FF, and EV in the fertile follicle and demonstrate that microRNAs loaded into EVs target mRNAs of distinct signaling pathways in comparison to microRNAs in FF. To conclude, the three follicular compartments play distinct roles in the signaling disturbances associated with PCOS.

Johansson HKL, Damdimopoulou P, van Duursen MBM, Boberg J, Franssen D, de Cock M, Jääger K, Wagner M, Velthut-Meikas A, Xie Y, Connolly L, Lelandais P, Mazaud-Guittot S, Salumets A, Draskau MK, Filis P, Fowler PA, Christiansen S, Parent AS, Svingen T.

Modern living challenges female reproductive health. We are witnessing a rise in reproductive disorders and drop in birth rates across the world. The reasons for these manifestations are multifaceted and most likely include continuous exposure to an ever-increasing number of chemicals. The cause–effect relationships between chemical exposure and female reproductive disorders, however, have proven problematic to determine. This has made it difficult to assess the risks chemical exposures pose to a woman’s reproductive development and function. To address this challenge, this review uses the adverse outcome pathway (AOP) concept to summarize current knowledge about how chemical exposure can affect female reproductive health. We have a special focus on effects on the ovaries, since they are essential for lifelong reproductive health in women, being the source of both oocytes and several reproductive hormones, including sex steroids. The AOP framework is widely accepted as a new tool for toxicological safety assessment that enables better use of mechanistic knowledge for regulatory purposes. AOPs equip assessors and regulators with a pragmatic network of linear cause–effect relationships, enabling the use of a wider range of test method data in chemical risk assessment and regulation. Based on current knowledge, we propose ten putative AOPs relevant for female reproductive disorders that can be further elaborated and potentially be included in the AOPwiki. This effort is an important step towards better safeguarding the reproductive health of all girls and women.

Duursen MBMV, Boberg J, Christiansen S, Connolly L, Damdimopoulou P, Filis P, Fowler PA, Gadella BM, Holte J, Jääger K, Johansson HKL, Li T, Mazaud-Guittot S, Parent AS, Salumets A, Soto AM, Svingen T, Velthut-Meikas A, Wedebye EB, Xie Y, Berg MVD. 

Currently available test methods are not well-suited for the identification of chemicals that disturb hormonal processes involved in female reproductive development and function. This renders women’s reproductive health at increasing risk globally, which, coupled with increasing incidence rates of reproductive disorders, is of great concern. A woman’s reproductive health is largely established during embryonic and fetal development and subsequently matures during puberty. The endocrine system influences development, maturation, and function of the female reproductive system, thereby making appropriate hormone levels imperative for correct functioning of reproductive processes. It is concerning that the effects of human-made chemicals on the endocrine system and female reproductive health are poorly addressed in regulatory chemical safety assessment, partly because adequate test methods are lacking. Our EU-funded project FREIA aims to address this need by increasing understanding of how endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) can impact female reproductive health. We will use this information to provide better test methods that enable fit-for-purpose chemical regulation and then share our knowledge, promote a sustainable society, and improve the reproductive health of women globally.

Ilmatar Rooda, Kati Hensen, Birgitta Kaselt, Sergo Kasvandik, Martin Pook, Ants Kurg, Andres Salumets, Agne Velthut-Meikas

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are known post-transcriptional regulators of various biological processes including ovarian follicle development. We have previously identified miRNAs from human pre-ovulatory ovarian granulosa cells that are expressed from the intronic regions of two key genes in normal follicular development: FSH receptor (FSHR) and CYP19A1, the latter encoding the aromatase enzyme. The present study aims to identify the target genes regulated by these miRNAs: hsa-miR-548ba and hsa-miR-7973, respectively. The miRNAs of interest were transfected into KGN cell line and the gene expression changes were analyzed by Affymetrix microarray. Potential miRNA-regulated genes were further filtered by bioinformatic target prediction algorithms and validated for direct miRNA:mRNA binding by luciferase reporter assay. LIFR, PTEN, NEO1 and SP110 were confirmed as targets for hsa-miR-548ba. Hsa-miR-7973 target genes ADAM19, PXDN and FMNL3 also passed all verification steps. Additionally, the expression pattern of the miRNAs was studied in human primary cumulus granulosa cell culture in relation to the expression of their host genes and FSH stimulation. Based on our findings we propose the involvement of hsa-miR-548ba in the regulation of follicle growth and activation via LIFR and PTEN. Hsa-miR-7973 may be implicated in the modulation of extracellular matrix and cell-cell interactions by regulating the expression of its identified targets.