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Can This New Sperm Sorting Technique Increase IVF Success?

A tiny change means big success rates for those little swimmers.

November 20, 2020
Brooke Barash

For aspiring parents struggling with fertility, in vitro fertilization can be life-changing. Still, the process isn’t yet 100% effective. There are lots of moving parts--some of which require a delicate touch. Well, now, there’s a new technology that ensures a gentleness akin to a feather tap. Here’s what you need to know about sperm sorting and the machine responsible for it.

Couple holding hands, waiting for IVF results
If you want a little one of your own and are having trouble conceiving, the first step is understanding your options. Keep reading to learn more about IVF. Image courtesy of iStock.


The Inner-workings Of IVF

IVF, or in vitro fertilization, is an assisted method of conception that allows people to conceive who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. More often than not, infertility is the driving force. Here are some risk factors for fertility issues--

  • Advanced maternal age
  • Uterine Disorders
  • Impaired Sperm Production or Function
  • Fallopian Tube Damage or Blockage
  • Previous Cancer Diagnosis
  • Unexplained Fertility

But there are still other reasons to consider IVF. 

Some choose IVF when they’re at risk of passing on a genetic disorder. Others might consider this method when trying to conceive with a donor/surrogate instead of a partner. 

Regardless of what’s driving you to consider assisted conception, IVF is a great and valid option. 

So How Does It Work?

With a full cycle lasting three weeks, women take synthetic hormones to induce ovulation. From there, practitioners collect mature eggs and sperm samples to fertilize outside the womb. After incubating overnight, they’re inseminated. 

But don’t worry if things don’t work out the first time around--doctors have another trick up their sleeves.

Another method is more a la carte. It consists of injecting a single healthy sperm into each mature egg, individually. This alternative route is called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection. It’s typically used when there are concerns surrounding the quality or quantity of sperm cells. 

Regardless of how the embryos are created, parental hopefuls can expect their results around 12-14 days after the embryos transfer into the uterus. 

Couple holding pregnant stomach after successful IVF
IVF is one of the most revolutionary inventions for couples and individuals that have trouble conceiving naturally. And like most groundbreaking inventions, it’s in a constant state of improvement. With that, it might be a good idea to learn about what kinks are still being worked out in this mode of conception.  Image courtesy of Kei Scampa via Pexels.


Why IVF Isn’t Yet Foolproof 

Just as there are many reasons why someone might be struggling with fertility, there are also a few reasons why fertility treatments might not stick. Here’s what we know about why in vitro fertilization sometimes hits while other times, it misses.

Egg Retrieval 

One of the most crucial steps in IVF is egg retrieval. Before fertilization, practitioners must retrieve eggs from previously stimulated ovaries. Usually, there’s an expected amount to be collected. 

But sometimes, fertility doctors aren’t able to retrieve as many eggs as expected. Or, worst-case scenario, any at all.

It’s easy to imagine how this could throw a wrench in the process. With fewer eggs than expected, there’s a decreased chance of creating viable embryos to implant. And without any eggs, well, there is no IVF. 

Lab Environment

Embryos thrive inside the uterus--a place with a specific pH, temperature, oxygen concentration, etc. Because of that, even the slightest deviation from a proper environment can lead to embryo death. IVF centers do their best to create the most conducive conditions for successful fertilization and implantation. Still, it can be challenging to ensure infallible consistency. 

Embryo Selection

One of the top reasons for IVF failure is defective embryos. Sometimes, embryos that look viable in lab settings have abnormalities that are only detectable after implantation. This shortcoming is because there isn’t yet technology that can help practitioners detect chromosomal abnormalities.

 As it stands, fertility doctors look for a few criteria when choosing which embryos to implant--

  • Embryo Grade
  • Rate of Cell Division
  • Cell Stage

While these factors are good indicators for potentially successful implantation, they only account for part of the equation. 

IVF practitioner  fertilizing mature eggs
While there isn’t a way to guarantee success in IVF just yet, researchers are continually looking for new ways to ensure that everyone who wants to can become a parent. Image courtesy of Edward Jenner via Pexels.


New Developments 

When we talk about IVF, the conversation’s focal point is often about female fertility and egg quality. But as we know, it takes two to tango--especially regarding conception. 

With that, let’s talk about sperm selection. 

As important as it is to retrieve healthy eggs, the same goes for sperm. Before specialists create embryos, they take great care to choose fertile sperm that exhibit good motility. That process is called sperm sorting. 

The Study

Conventional cell sorters take care of the vetting process. This method is excellent for efficiency but can be rough on those delicate little swimmers, potentially damaging them. And unfortunately, these otherwise healthy sperm cells get taken out of the running. 

But not for long. In a brilliant research collaboration between Kyoto and Kumamoto Universities, researchers used technology that protects healthy sperm from residual damage. 

Microfluidic devices found in chemical and biotech research proved themselves equally beneficial in the fertility world. Swapping out conventional cell sorters for this technology allows sperm cells more room during the separation process. Therefore, it prevents impairment. 

Putting this new method to the test, researchers used mouse sperm. They were able to go through the process successfully without compromising each sperm cell’s motility.

While it’s a small difference, this innovation can be the difference between a failed and fruitful attempt at conceiving. It’s only a matter of time until we see it in IVF labs--we can’t wait!
















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