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A staggering number of couples access IVF each year, but success rates remain low. That could all be about to change, thanks to new research into light as a way to measure embryo health.

In Australia, it’s estimated that 1 in 6 couples will have trouble having a baby.

In-vitro fertilisation, or IVF, is a viable option, but it’s not as simple as paying money and giving birth to a healthy baby. There are many gaps in our understanding of implanting embryos, and the chances of success are low.

This reality can bring with it significant financial and emotional hardship for patients — but there’s hope on the horizon, thanks to new research conducted by the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP).

To explain more, here are 5 things you probably didn’t know about IVF.

1. Your chances of IVF success are less than 1 in 5

Even though IVF has been around for decades, success rates are still relatively low — around 18% of IVF procedures will result in the birth of a healthy baby.

What’s more concerning is those numbers haven’t changed in years. Researchers are still in the dark about many aspects of IVF, and it’s a tricky area to study because of the delicate nature of the procedures.

2. Current tests for embryo health are risky and inaccurate

As part of the current gold standard in IVF procedures, an embryologist assesses the ‘health’ of each embryo before selecting which one to implant into the patient’s womb.

This process, known as pre-implantation genetic testing, involves removing a small number of cells from the embryo and sequencing them to check for chromosomal irregularities. However, research suggests this procedure is both risky and inaccurate.

‘In pre-implantation genetic testing, they take a biopsy of the cells that go on to form the placenta, not the cells that form the baby,’ explains Dr Kylie Dunning, chief investigator of Reproductive Success at CNBP.

‘But there’s enough evidence now to show that it’s not a reliable indicator of whether that embryo will go on to form a pregnancy, and result in the birth of a healthy baby.’

The technique may also increase the patient’s risk of pre-eclampsia — a serious blood-pressure condition which can have long-lasting effects on mother and baby.

3. Your chance of IVF success will vary between clinics

Because current IVF procedures require manual handling of embryos, there’s plenty of room for human error, leaving the chances of success in the hands of the clinicians.

‘The grading of the embryo is really dependent on the embryologist that does it,’ explains Dr Dunning. ‘It’s a labour-intensive, highly skilled procedure, and is very variable within a clinic, and between clinics.’

‘Most of the public doesn’t realise that it’s really a lottery.’

4. New research uses light to test embryo health

Now, Dr Dunning’s research from the CNBP shows embryo health can be assessed using a non-invasive technique called autofluorescence.

In this technique, Dr Dunning’s team shine very low levels of light onto the embryo. Shifts in the reflections are then captured by a high-powered camera (originally developed for use in space), and used to ascertain real-time shifts in the biochemistry of the embryo itself.

Another pioneering technique developed by this team involves using chemical sensors on the end of a nanoscale optical fibre to measure changes in pH levels in the fluid around the embryo.

These brand new techniques are accurate and, most importantly, pose no risk to the embryo.

5. IVF automation could improve success rates

Research from the CNBP suggests automation could be one of the keys to a revolution in IVF. Any step towards replacing the manual handling of embryos with more automated techniques could stand to significantly improve success rates for IVF patients.

Another technique developed by CNBP involves using nano 3D-printed structures to house the embryos before implantation. This contained pod would negate potential harms of manual handling of the embryos, while also allowing embryologists to make changes to the embryonic environment to better mimic the womb.

‘The goal is to automate or semi-automate this process so it removes some of that human factor in creating the variability in success,’ Dr Dunning explains.

A new era of IVF could be just around the corner.