The first baby to be successfully grown in the lab was born only 40 years ago in 1978, and this was when in vitro fertilisation (IVF) began. It is only through IVF that it has been made possible to create embryos outside the body and replace them back into the uterus to continue growing. Making and growing embryos is tightly regulated in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and it can only be done in licensed clinics by professional embryologists.
Why Grow Embryos Outside the Body?
The ability to create embryos in a laboratory has offered hope to millions of people who would have previously been unable to have a baby naturally. This may be due to infertility affecting men such as a low sperm count, or female infertility reasons such as hormonal imbalances, endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome. It may also be due to a family history of genetic diseases - advancements in genetic analysis mean that embryos can be tested to ensure they don't carry the affected genes to avoid passing on a life threatening condition. IVF treatments can also help same sex couples and single people who need to use donor eggs or sperm to create embryos. For many couples who want to have a baby there may be no clear reason at all why they are struggling and they are simply given a diagnosis of 'unexplained infertility'.
How are Embryos Grown in the Lab?
To create embryos, firstly eggs need to be collected from a woman's ovaries. They are then fertilised with sperm either from her partner or a donor. The resulting embryos are grown in closely monitored conditions which are designed to replicate the environment inside the body. Embryos are grown in the lab for up to 6 days before being transferred into the uterus or frozen for later use. This is because in a natural pregnancy the embryo would usually implant into the womb lining 5-6 days after fertilisation and it is important to mimic the body's natural timings as closely as possible.
The basic steps to create and grow embryos in a lab are always the same:
- Fertilisation using eggs and sperm
- Embryo Development for up to a week
- Embryo Transfer into the uterus
There are, however, differences in the technology used to complete these steps and there are additional treatments that can be used alongside a routine IVF treatment cycle. Keep reading to find out what treatments are right for you.
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