Stanford tests for squishy embryos

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- In the Camarillo bioengineering lab at Stanford, engineers measure impacts both big and small. And that ability can help in research as far ranging as preventing concussions to improving in vitro fertilization.

"Some of the same mechanics we use in concussion, machine learning to detect if the impact occurred or not, we use almost the exact same approach in this embryo project," says lab director David Camarillo, Ph.D.

Instead of a measuring the violent impact of football, their latest device measures the slightest give and take in the walls on newly fertilized embryos.

It's the brain child of graduate researcher Livia Yanez, who's dubbed it the embryo-bot. She says it uses a tiny straw like probe called a pipette.

"The way the measurement works is you instantaneously apply pressure to the embryo. So you can see that this embryo doesn't go very far into the pipette," Yanez explains, pointing to an image display.

Powerful software measures the minute amount of bending in the embryo wall, which they describe in layman's terms as its squishiness.

And what can squishiness tell you about newly fertilized egg? It turns out, a lot. Maybe even the odds of whether the embryo will grow and develop in the mother's womb.

"I think this technology has the potential to be a game changer," says Barry Behr, Ph.D., director of fertility and reproductive health services at Stanford Health Care.

Behr noticed years ago that some early embryos are squishier than others and wanted a way to test whether it gave them an advantage. Using Livia's embryo-bot, his team started tracking success rates. First with mouse embryos, then human.

"And the correlations we found in our studies suggest that the degree of elasticity or squishiness as it's been termed in the paper, correlates highly with the embryos ability to make it to the implantation stage," says Behr.

He says the system can predict which embryos will grow to the next stage of development with 90 percent accuracy.

In the mouse models, that resulted in a 50 percent increase in pregnancies.

"The holy grail of IVF procedure is being able to identify which embryos to implant and make a baby," Behr observes.

The system is still in clinical trial. But if it's approved for human fertility treatment, researchers believe it could potentially eliminate the need to implant multiple embryos, reducing the chances for twins and triplets while increasing successful pregnancies; all with the help of an embryo-bot.

Stanford researchers are now comparing screening data from the robotic system side-by-side with the results of their standard embryo selection method. If successful, they're hoping to use the robot to select embryos to implant in the next round of clinical trials.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.
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