Trying to have a baby can be an arduous and expensive business.
Each round of IVF treatment costs upwards of £3,000 and couples can find (depending on where they live) that it is they, and not the NHS, who are footing the bill.
Currently around 50,000 people undergo fertility treatment in the UK every year, yet success rates for each round of IVF are only about 23%.
Improving the odds
The Grow MedTech project ‘Microfluidic Embryo Culture as a Device to Improve the Efficiency of Infertility Treatments in Humans’, which is supported through Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund, is working to improve the odds of a successful pregnancy.
The conditions under which fertilised embryos are grown in the lab, before being implanted in the womb, significantly affect the success of fertility treatments.
Yet the methods for culturing embryos most commonly used by fertility clinics have not changed much in 40 years.
Embryos are cultured in open plastic petri dishes, overlaid with a mineral oil that is potentially toxic for embryo development and can adversely affect IVF outcomes.
Engineering a solution
Grow MedTech is one of many projects that demonstrate the potential of engineering to provide solutions to clinical problems.
It includes a consortium of six universities that specialise in innovation around medical technologies and involves engineers coming together with clinical experts, as well as patients and the manufacturing industry.
A device developed for the project for use in IVF provides safe, enclosed and precisely regulated micro-environments that more closely resemble an embryo’s natural growing conditions within the body.
Culturing the embryo
Project lead Dr Virginia Pensabene, a fellow of the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Leeds said:
There are many different steps involved in IVF.
We are focused on a specific one: the culture of the embryo once it is fertilised, but before it goes into the womb. It is critical to culture it in the best way.
Our new device is an enclosed chamber that replicates the narrow channels and movement within the fallopian tubes, with micro-fluids passing through it, providing the nutrients that the embryo would get in the body.
It also makes it easier to handle the delicate embryos without damaging them.
A better chance
One-year proof of concept funding has enabled the project team to assess the safety of the different materials that are used in the devices and to validate the most promising.
This has involved testing them out on bovine embryos, which are similar in size to human ones.
The funding is also helping the team to carry out market analysis and to develop a manufacturing plan.
With patents now granted and funding from NC3Rs (the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research) in place, the aim is to launch the device for animal breeding at the beginning of 2021.
By the end of 2022, once manufacturing and material safety have been fully tested, Grow MedTech hopes to make them available to fertility clinics for human IVF.
Many other factors remain which can influence IVF success rates: patient age, the initial cause of infertility, and egg and sperm health are still important.
The MedTech team estimates that by using the new device, each round of IVF has at least a 10% better chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy.
That means significantly less emotional trauma for prospective parents, and greatly reduced costs both for the NHS and for couples themselves.