Fertility Blog

Lab Director Joe Conaghan's Biography

Joseph Conaghan, PhD

I grew up in a small fishing town called Killybegs, on the northwest coast of Ireland. I was the second boy among five my parents were blessed with. My mother sent me to school on the day of my 4th birthday, and at age 12, I followed my older brother to boarding school—never living at home after that. I was a young 17-year-old when I started university in Limerick, where I majored in Biology and Agricultural Science, and picked up a teaching credential.

At university, we were all enamored with marine biology, and I spent two summers doing internships on the biology and population dynamics of fish being landed in Irish ports. The work was extremely interesting, but careers in marine biology were hard to come by so I had to cast my net a little wider. After graduation, I applied for teaching and laboratory-based jobs, but none really caught my interest.

With the hope of finding something more interesting, I moved to London in the spring of 1988. I applied for an embryologist position for which I had no qualifications or experience, nor even much of an idea of what the job entailed. Professor Robert Winston, famous now as a Lord and a well-known TV presenter in the UK, interviewed me. He offered me the chance of a lifetime, and I started work one week later at London's Hammersmith Hospital.

The senior embryologist and my mentor was Dr. Nikki Winston, the current IVF Lab Director at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Nikki and I were working in a busy IVF facility in West London at a time when IVF was a relatively new medical discipline. Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, had been born just 10 years earlier, and the science of IVF was still relatively new.

For example, we were operating before GnRH analogues were routinely used in IVF. This meant we were at the mercy of the timing of the patient’s own LH surge and a patient’s oocyte retrieval procedure couldn’t be scheduled. So Nikki covered late-night retrievals and I covered early-morning procedures.

As a young embryologist working in one of London’s major teaching hospitals, I found opportunities for advancement everywhere. About the time I started working, Dr. Alan Handyside was developing preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) right in our facility. The world’s first PGD cases were performed there on five women with sex-linked diseases in their families. I doubt I will ever again be as nervous as I was doing the embryo transfers for those women. Today, every IVF program around the world now routinely offers PGD, which allows couples to eliminate a genetic disease from their family.

In 1991, I was drafted into doing some research on the metabolism of human embryos when a prominent scientist from The University of York, Professor Henry Leese, asked me to help with a project. The work was productive. Under Henry’s guidance and with the support of my other mentors (Winston, Handyside and Hardy), I gave up my day job and registered as a PhD student with the University of London, completing my PhD in 1994.

Just as I was finishing up my research, a visiting scientist from UCSF spent a summer sabbatical in our lab. Professor Roger Peterson was the IVF lab director and a well-known developmental biologist in San Francisco. With Roger’s help, I interviewed at UCSF and moved to San Francisco in January of 1995 to head the IVF Program. The IVF program at UCSF was about one-tenth the size of the program in London, but I was again working with some fantastic people. But at the end of 1999, Doctors Schriock, Givens, and Ryan announced that they would leave UCSF and take over Pacific Fertility Center in partnership with Doctors Chenette and Herbert, who were running another IVF facility, San Francisco Center for Reproductive Medicine (SFCRM). I was excited to have the chance to continue working with them as their lab director.

The last 10 years at PFC have been very productive and rewarding. I have had the great pleasure of working with a group of fine embryologists. The lab has undergone several metamorphoses with huge investments in equipment and infrastructure. And we finished with a complete lab remodel and extension in 2008, making the PFC lab one of the most advanced (and beautiful) in the world.

Perhaps our biggest achievement has been the pioneering of embryo and oocyte vitrification as routine procedures. Ten years ago, all embryos were cryopreserved using the established method of “slow-freezing,” where embryos were cooled slowly and gently over a period of almost three hours. The process was universally used, but embryo survival was only around 70 percent and outcomes were unpredictable. Although the method worked for embryos, it didn’t give good results with oocytes.

The real breakthrough came when scientists switched to an ultra-fast freezing method, called vitrification. PFC was an early adopter of the technology, vitrifying our first oocytes and embryos in 2006 and abandoning slow freezing in 2007. Since then, I have spent a lot of time teaching the technique nationally and internationally. One of the big impacts of mastering vitrification has been the development of robust fertility preservation programs, mainly for single women and patients facing cancer treatments.

Outside of a rewarding career at PFC, I also teach at San Francisco State University where my course “Reproductive Technologies” is in its tenth year. I have lived in and loved San Francisco for many years. It was here that I met my awesome wife Leslie, who until recently was a high school biotechnology teacher. We now live in Half Moon Bay with our three children: 14-year-old Tom, 11-year-old Julie, and 6-year-old Lily. Being Irish, I would love more children but, as my wife points out, we have been very fortunate.

In my ideal world, the future would bring technologies that would help every IVF patient have their dream baby. But in reality, we have some amazing technologies as a result of 25 years of development, and so many more patients are already realizing their dreams.

Posted on October 2nd, 2012
Tags: PFC Lab, IVF - In Vitro Fertilization

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