Are Sperm-Injecting Robots the Future of IVF?
Two healthy baby girls have a European robot to thank for their existence, at least partially.
An engineer with reportedly minimal fertility experience used a Sony Playstation 5 controller to guide a robot to inseminate more than a dozen eggs in the first in vitro fertilization treatment (IVF) of its kind.
A pair of those eggs are now healthy babies, according to an April report from MIT Technology Review.
What is a sperm-injecting robot?
The historic experiment took place in 2022 at New Hope Fertility Center in New York City using a remote-controlled needle. Madrid-based company Overture Life described its groundbreaking robot as the first step in automating IVF. Right now it represents just a small part of the overall IVF process.
Engineers from Barcelona assembled their robot at the New York City clinic. It consisted of a microscope, a mechanized needle, a petri dish and a laptop, according to the MIT Technology Review. Engineer Eduard Alba, a student mechanical engineer, maneuvered the device.
Inventions such as this one from Overture Life may one day lower the cost of IVF treatments. One IVF cycle, with ovarian stimulation, human egg retrieval and embryo transfer may cost $15,000 to $30,000, according to Forbes.
Insurance companies may cover some of the costs of IVF treatments. Sometimes, grants, clinical research studies and discount specials may reduce some of the cost. But medications involved in the fertility procedure are expensive, potentially accounting for roughly 35 percent of the cost of IVF treatments, the Forbes article said.
"Fertility preservation is gaining in popularity in major urban centers," Overture's website stated. "Providing an automated solution to ART [assisted reproductive technology] providers will help facilitate the most complex and cumbersome part of this process. Through scale and reproducible outcomes, costs will come down."
The fertility clinic and Overture Life didn't respond to requests for comment.
How do traditional IVF treatments work?
Without remote-controlled robots to handle the procedure, the typical IVF treatment involves injections of hormones into a woman. This synthetic hormone injection, containing follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), prompts the ovaries to produce multiple eggs, according to Penn Medicine.
Blood tests and transvaginal testing monitor hormone levels and the ovaries.
Prior to the eggs being retrieved, the patient receives another hormone shot to encourage the eggs to mature faster. A healthcare professional performs an outpatient surgery called follicular aspiration to get the eggs. Without the aid of a robot, an ultrasound shows the physician what they need to know. The doctor then maneuvers a thin needle into the ovaries to grab the eggs.
Then, an embryologist places the healthiest eggs in a petri dish with the partner's sperm or donor sperm to make the embryos—a process called insemination. Some undergo intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where a single sperm cell is injected into the egg, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Another outpatient surgery follows within three to five days, during which the doctor implants one or more embryos using a catheter, Penn Medicine stated. The patient will take a pregnancy test to determine the success. Multiple births are possible if multiple embryos implant.
Why would people use a sperm-injecting robot?
Infertility is an increasingly common problem among Americans of reproductive age.
One in five, or about 19 percent, of married women in the United States will struggle to conceive each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Demand for fertility treatments has boomed over the past decade, according to the latest 2020 report from the CDC. About 2 percent of all babies born in the U.S. each year are conceived with the help of ART.
The bottom line
Using robots may help make the IVF process less expensive. Automating fertility could reduce the time required for IVF procedures and, with increased efficiency, may potentially lead to more success stories.
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