A little background about Embryology & Embryologists
Embryology is a rapidly developing field; it is a stream of biology that involves the development of an embryo from the fertilisation of the ovum to the fetus stage. Clinical Embryologists are scientists that work in this area and are usually involved in fertility treatment and reproductive research.
Embryologists perform embryological procedures such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and diagnostic services. They communicate with patients about specific treatments, success rates and statistics.
Clinical embryologists need practical and theoretical understanding of human reproductive biology, embryology, infertility, assisted reproductive technology (ART) as well as keeping up to date with current regulations and legislation. Formal qualifications usually include a Degree in Biological Science or Health Science and post graduate qualifications in Reproduction.
What is an embryologists role in IVF
Embryologists are responsible for the scientific component of our IVF treatments and services, IVF works to a strict timeline as we are replicating the natural conception process. So this means we need an embryologist available at all times to check how the embryos are developing.
We’re scientists, not medical doctors or clinicians, but we do discuss treatments with patients. When accessing IVF through Monash IVF the interaction with the embryology team is generally at the time prior to the egg retrieval, at the time of the embryo transfer and around embryo biopsy to ensure we are able to answer patient questions and so they are completely informed. It’s important for patients to be speaking with experts in their respective fields and this is why embryologists speak with our patients routinely.
We have strict quality processes, to ensure we comply with the many regulations. For us, this includes our triple check quality system, which consists of procedure check, computerised check, then an independent procedural check and sign off for each treatment we do. This means we are 300% sure that the gametes we are working on are the gametes we should be working on.
What are the common procedures an embryologist undertakes for the IVF process
Egg Collection – this process is performed immediately after the follicular fluid is retrieved from the woman’s ovaries. The fluid is poured into dishes in a humidity crib and viewed under microscope. The eggs are separated and provided with a nutrient rich media, heat and humidity to replicate, as near as possible, the conditions found in a womens fallopian tubes.
Prepare Sperm Samples – this process occurs immediately after the male has provided his sperm sample or where a testicular biopsy has occurred. It involves washing the sample so that all the clean happy swimming sperm are preparing it for the fertilisation process, this will include assessing the sample for the number of sperm (sperm count) and motility levels.
Insemination – this is the process of bringing the sperm and eggs together to encourage fertilisation. There are two methods that can be used which will depend on the quality of the sperm (how fast & strong it can swim). The ‘traditional’ method is to introduce sperm to the egg to encourage natural insemination. In this scenario, most sperm will instinctively try to bury into the egg, with the strongest sperm actually cracking through the eggs outer layers to commence the fertilisation process. Where standard insemination is not suitable, ICSI or Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection is used. This is where we select a single sperm and inject directly into the egg, this procedure is done under microscope using a micropipette that is 5 micrometres in diameter.
Fertilisation Monitoring & Growing to Blastocyst – after insemination gametes are stored at optimal temperatures and monitored for signs of fertilisation. Embryos at Monash IVF can be grown to day 3 or blastocyst stage on day 5/6 of development. During this time, the media, nutrients and temperatures are all modified to replicate the change in conditions that would naturally occur as the embryo travels through the fallopian tubes to the uterus.
Embryo Biopsy (for Embryo Genetic Testing) – Embryo Genetic Testing is the process of testing embryos for the purpose of diagnosing or screening for genetic or chromosomal abnormalities. There are number of different methods and technologies depending on the specific test required, however they all start with an embryo biopsy. The embryo biopsy is performed at the blastocyst stage, this is a delicate procedure undertaken under microscope using micro pippettes. A small number of cells are carefully removed by the embryologist and prepared for the specific genetic testing process required.
Vitrification – eggs or embryos that are not transferred in a fresh cycle and are considered viable are frozen using a method called vitrification and stored for use in a later treatment cycle. Vitrification is an ultra-rapid freeze method that bypasses ice crystal formation and involves protecting the embryo with a cryo-protectant solution before submerging in liquid nitrogen. Once vitrified, the embryos are stored in tanks at -196 degrees Celsius. Once vitrified and stored, embryos last indefinitely; however legislation prescribed this to be 5 years under Victorian ART legislation.
What is the most satisfying part of being an embryologist
It’s great when couples come back for siblings for their first child (or children) and bring them along to the embryo transfer; often it is only at this point that we get to meet the adorable children we have assisted to create in the lab.
When working with sperm, eggs and embryos, they are microscopic – so it’s lovely being able to see our work and the joy it provides to families.
Embryology is an amazing and fascinating field; it gives you a great sense of pride.
What skills do you need to do the job well
You need good hand-eye coordination as well as a really steady hand!
You need to be methodical about process and quality – everything follows strict protocols.
You have to have a high attention to detail and have respect for patients who entrust you with their sperm, eggs and embryos and constantly remind yourself of just how important what you are doing is for the patients.