Imaging technique to aid IVF embryo selection

Thursday, 31 August, 2017


Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) have developed an imaging technique that can help assess the quality of early-stage embryos. Their research has the potential to benefit the IVF industry of the future, improving assisted reproduction outcomes for women.

“We use a special type of imaging to show differences in the metabolism and chemical make-up of embryos before they’ve been implanted,” said Dr Mel Sutton-McDowall, lead author on the study from the University of Adelaide.

“This technique can give us an objective measure of which embryo to choose as part of the IVF process.”

‘Hyperspectral imaging’ measures light that cells naturally produce during their normal activities. The light or ‘autofluorescence’ produced changes according to the chemical reactions or metabolism going on in the cell.

Being able to measure embryo metabolism is viewed by many researchers as one of the most important factors as to whether a particular IVF program will be successful. However, said Dr Sutton-McDowall, fertility specialists take a largely subjective approach in deciding which embryos should be used.

“Pre-implantation screening of embryos generally takes place under a normal optical microscope,” she said. “Although it’s quite easy to discern poor embryos (due to differences in uniformity), it is far harder for the clinician to determine, objectively, the viability of the other embryos.

“The challenge is how to choose the single healthiest embryo out of this group to maximise the chances of pregnancy.”

Dr Sutton-McDowall said hyperspectral imaging can be combined with other diagnostic methods to provide a more accurate and objective embryo viability assessment. She noted that the technique can “capture information-rich content of inspected objects”, analysing “every pixel in an image for its light intensity at differing wavelengths”.

“This lets us drill down and analyse the hyperspectral signature of each individual embryo, looking for known or anomalous characteristics. It lets us discriminate between embryos, but also measuring metabolic differences within individual embryos. We predict that embryos that have cells with homogeneous (uniform) metabolic profiles are the healthier ones.”

While the imaging technology has so far only been tested on cattle embryos, Dr Sutton-McDowall said the technique is extremely promising, offering “a non-invasive imaging approach that provides real-time information to the clinician”. And though the likely development of a specialised hyperspectral imaging tool for use in the IVF clinic is still several years away, Dr Sutton-McDowall believes that there is a strong surge of interest from IVF clinics to better predict embryo development outcomes through technology.

“I think we’ll see this innovative approach commercialised fairly quickly,” she said.

“IVF is a costly and complex treatment. Any new method that can help improve the odds of women successfully having babies is of benefit to both clinicians and their patients.”

The study has been published in the journal Human Reproduction.

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