Research Advisory Council

Charles and Ann Sanders Massachusetts General Hospital Research Scholar, Sylvie Breton, PhD

On a Journey to Understand Male Infertility

Sylvie Breton, PhD, has devoted her life’s work to finding solutions for a heart-breaking medical concern — male infertility. Studies have shown that male infertility is increasing worldwide. But without a better understanding of how the male reproductive system operates, scientists and physicians will not be able to help these men father children.

Dr. Breton’s research focuses on the travel route and storage of sperm inside the male body. And her research is now on a surprising and amazing journey of its own. A recent finding by Dr. Breton and her colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital could lead to solutions for men who are infertile and for people living with asthma and other respiratory disorders.

Sylvie Breton, PhD, 2011 MGH Research Scholars

Charles and Ann Sanders Research Scholar,
Sylvie Breton, PhD

Mass General has the largest hospital-based biomedical research program in the United States and attracts many of the world’s brightest medical researchers. But researchers, both early-career scientists and established scientists venturing into new areas of investigation with creative, but unproven ideas, face many challenges in securing funding for their work.

That’s why the MGH Research Scholars Program is essential. With support from the Charles and Ann Sanders MGH Research Scholar Award, Dr. Breton has funding to move forward with her research. She can use the award to establish results that might later attract the attention of funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Charles Sanders, who had a distinguished career at Mass General as a cardiologist and general director, recognizes the critical importance of medical research. “There is simply no progress in medicine without research,” he says. “Mass General is a leader in conducting research that sets the worldwide standard. Ann and I are pleased to support the exceptional scientists at MGH whose hard work will drive the future of research.”

What a Cell Might Be Able to Tell Us

To answer the question why male infertility is increasing, researchers need to understand what fosters a favorable environment for sperm maturation, storage and delivery.

Dr. Breton and colleagues in her lab in the Program in Membrane Biology of Mass General’s Center for Systems Biology have been looking at a coiled tubular organ in the male body. The organ, called the epididymis, reaches 6 meters in length. Sperm travel through this tube, where they mature and are stored until deployed.

Cells lining the inside of the tubular organ are tightly stacked and linked together. Dr. Breton is studying one of those cells, the wine-glass-shaped basal cells. Her research showed that basal cells poke up a little antenna to see what is happening with other cells — checking the man’s blood and also whether the maturing sperm are OK. Dr. Breton’s research found that if basal cells notice something amiss, they alert nearby cells, which then fix the problem.

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For information about how you can support the Research Scholars Program, please contact the Mass General Development Office at 617-726-2200

What is remarkable about Dr. Breton’s research is she learned that basal cells might also serve as sensors and transmitters in our windpipe. She proposes that basal cells are part of an elaborate communication network put into place to regulate the response of the trachea to molecules present in the air we breathe. This may help researchers better understand asthma and other breathing disorders.

A Critical Time to Support the Best of the Best

A native of Quebec City, Dr. Breton has worked at Mass General since 1994 when she arrived for post-doctoral studies. Today, Dr. Breton is an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Mass General. “Mass General is one of the best places to work in the USA,” she says. “Women scientists are welcome and supported.”

Dr. Breton says the MGH Research Scholar Award gives her the freedom to investigate two organ systems simultaneously, something she would not be able to do with traditional funding. “It’s a great honor and you feel humble at the same time,” she says.

Competition for the awards is intense. During the program’s inaugural year, more than 115 researchers applied. Five researchers, the best of the best, including Dr. Breton, were named MGH Research Scholars.

“Dr. Breton’s work illustrates how research on one organ system can lead to surprising discoveries about others,” says Bruce Walker, MD, acclaimed physician-researcher and co-chair of Mass General’s Research Scholars Award Committee. “Without basic research, we may never have linked cells involved in the operations of male fertility and breathing disorders.”