Embryology: the branch of biology dealing with embryos and their development
There are some roles in a fertility clinic that are obvious - the nurses you see at each visit, the fertility doctor in charge of your care - but there is an important part of many types of fertility treatments that works more behind the scenes: the embryologist. If in vitro fertilization is a part of your fertility care, an embryologist will play a key role.
Giving Your Embryos the Best Chance Possible
An embryologist is a fertility specialist that helps to create viable embryos to either be used in IVF right away or to be frozen for later use. Embryologists aren't MDs, but they are highly trained medical professionals, usually holding a Masters degree or a PhD due to the specialized nature of their work. They are responsible for the careful maintenance and management of the genetic material used in creating embryos - the collected sperm and eggs - as well as monitoring those embryos as they develop.
For women, creating embryos through in vitro fertilization begins with controlled ovarian hyperstimulation. This process causes the ovaries to mature more than one egg so that multiple can be collected at once. During the egg retrieval procedure, the physician uses a needle to puncture the matured follicle and collect the fluid within. The embryologist then takes this fluid, examines it under a microscope, and identifies and separates any eggs contained within.
For men, the process is simpler. A semen sample is collected and then sent to the embryologist for washing. Sperm washing is the process of removing all seminal fluid, which leaves only the most mobile and healthy sperm.
Once the eggs are collected and the sperm is washed and prepared, the embryologist gets to work. They will combine the sperm and eggs to hopefully create a number of embryos. They will then carefully monitor the development of those embryos. In some cases, the embryologist will use intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) - a more intensive IVF process that involves injecting a single healthy sperm cell into each mature egg - to increase the chances of fertilization.
An Opportunity for PGD or PGS
There is an optional, but often recommended, step that is possible when creating embryos outside of the body: genetic testing. There are two categories of genetic testing that can be done to embryos before they are implanted. One is pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) for patients with identifiable genetic defects - like cystic fibrosis, thalassemia, or sickle cell disease - or pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS) which may allow us to identify embryos with the right number of chromosomes. Both processes require a biopsy - a process where a few cells are collected from the developing embryo - for testing. This process is extremely delicate, but identifying the healthiest and chromosomally normal embryos increases the likelihood of a successful pregnancy.
A Key Member of Your Fertility Team
Success in fertility care hinges on successful collaboration between fertility doctors, a clinic’s nurses, and the embryologists. You may not spend much face-to-face time with your embryologist team, but know that they are working hard in the lab to ensure the healthy development of your embryos. Learn more about our expert embryologists (as well as the rest of our team), and then when you’re ready, schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation to begin your journey to parenthood. Contact us today!