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. IVF has made it possible to create embryos outside the body and replace them back into the uterus to continue growing and hopefully make a healthy baby.
Approximately 1 in 6 couples have difficulty conceiving so fertility treatments have become an essential part of modern medicine. For many people, having a baby would be impossible without the help of IVF.
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 hormonal imbalances, or female infertility reasons such as advanced age, endometriosis or polycystic ovaries.
IVF is not only for people suffering with subfertility - it may be necessary to create embryos in the lab for genetic testing, to help people with a family history of genetic diseases avoid passing on a life threatening condition to their baby. 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 to conceive and they are simply given a diagnosis of 'unexplained infertility'.
Growing Embryos in the Lab: The Basics
Before embryos can be created, eggs need to be collected from a woman's ovaries. They are then fertilised in the laboratory either by placing them in close contact with sperm (IVF) or by injecting sperm directly into the egg (ICSI). Fertilised eggs become embryos as early as the next day and they 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. In a natural pregnancy the embryo would usually implant into the womb lining 5-6 days after fertilisation so this process aims to mimic the body's natural timings as closely as possible.
The basic steps to create and grow embryos are always the same:
- Fertilisation using eggs and sperm
- Embryo development for up to 6 days
- Embryo transfer into the uterus
However there are differences in the technology used to complete these steps and there are additional treatments that can be used alongside routine processes. Not only that, but not all embryos are successful and many factors can affect their potential to make a baby. You can read more about this in the posts below.
Ready to Learn More About Embryos?
Read about the different stages of embryo development from a fertilised egg to a blastocyst. Learn about embryo grading, what to expect during IVF and the different factors which can affect the quality of embryos.
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