In vitro fertilization or fertilization (IVF) is a process by which an egg is fertilised by sperm outside the body: in vitro ("in glass"). The process involves monitoring and stimulating a woman's ovulatory process, removing an ovum or ova (egg or eggs) from the woman's ovaries and letting sperm fertilise them in a liquid in a laboratory. The fertilised egg (zygote) is cultured for 2–6 days in a growth medium and is then implanted in the same or another woman's uterus, with the intention of establishing a successful pregnancy.
IVF techniques can be used in different types of situations. It is a technique of assisted reproductive technology for treatment of infertility. IVF techniques are also employed in gestational surrogacy, in which case the fertilised egg is implanted into a surrogate's uterus, and the resulting child is genetically unrelated to the surrogate. In some situations, donated eggs or sperms may be used. Some countries ban or otherwise regulate the availability of IVF treatment, giving raise to fertility tourism. Restrictions on availability of IVF include to single females, to lesbians and to surrogacy arrangements. Due to the costs of the procedure, IVF is mostly attempted only after less expensive options have failed.
The first successful birth of a "test tube baby", Louise Brown, occurred in 1978. Louise Brown was born as a result of natural cycle IVF where no stimulation was made. Robert G. Edwards, the physiologist who developed the treatment, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010. With egg donation and IVF, women who are past their reproductive years or menopause can still become pregnant. Adriana Iliescu held the record as the oldest woman to give birth using IVF and donated egg, when she gave birth in 2004 at the age of 66, a record passed in 2006.
IVF success rates are the percentage of all IVF procedures which result in a favorable outcome. Depending on the type of calculation used, this outcome may represent the number of confirmed pregnancies, called the pregnancy rate, or the number of live births, called the live birth rate.
Due to advances in reproductive technology, IVF success rates are substantially higher today than they were just a few years ago.
Theoretically, in vitro fertilisation could be performed by collecting the contents from a woman's fallopian tubes or uterus after natural ovulation, mixing it with sperm, and reinserting the fertilised ova into the uterus. However, without additional techniques, the chances of pregnancy would be extremely small. The additional techniques that are routinely used in IVF include ovarian hyperstimulation to generate multiple eggs or ultrasound-guided transvaginal oocyte retrieval directly from the ovaries; after which the ova and sperm are prepared, as well as culture and selection of resultant embryos before embryo transfer into a uterus.
Ovarian hyperstimulation is the stimulation to induce development of multiple follicles of the ovaries. It should start with response prediction by e.g. age, antral follicle count and level of anti-Müllerian hormone. The resulting prediction of e.g. poor or hyper-response to ovarian hyperstimulation determines the protocol and dosage for ovarian hyperstimulation.
Ovarian hyperstimulation also includes suppression of spontaneous ovulation, for which two main methods are available: Using a (usually longer) GnRH agonist protocol or a (usually shorter) GnRH antagonist protocol. In a standard long GnRH agonist protocol the day when hyperstimulation treatment is started and the expected day of later oocyte retrieval can be chosen to conform to personal choice, while in a GnRH antagonist protocol it must be adapted to the spontaneous onset of the previous menstruation. On the other hand, the GnRH antagonist protocol has a lower risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), which is a life-threatening complication.
For the ovarian hyperstimulation in itself, injectable gonadotropins (usually FSH analogues) are generally used under close monitoring. Such monitoring frequently checks the estradiol level and, by means of gynecologic ultrasonography, follicular growth. Typically approximately 10 days of injections will be necessary.
There are several methods termed natural cycle IVF:
Final maturation induction
- IVF using no drugs for ovarian hyperstimulation, while drugs for ovulation suppression may still be used.
- IVF using ovarian hyperstimulation, including gonadotropins, but with a GnRH antagonist protocol so that the cycle initiates from natural mechanisms.
Frozen embryo transfer; IVF using ovarian hyperstimulation, followed by embryo cryopreservation, followed by embryo transfer in a later, natural, cycle.
- IVF using no drugs for ovarian hyperstimulation was the method for the conception of Louise Brown. This method can be successfully used when women want to avoid taking ovarian stimulating drugs with its associated side-effects. HFEA has estimated the live birth rate to be approximately 1.3% per IVF cycle using no hyperstimulation drugs for women aged between 40–42.
- Mild IVF is a method where a small dose of ovarian stimulating drugs are used for a short duration during a woman’s natural cycle aimed at producing 2–7 eggs and creating healthy embryos. This method appears to be an advance in the field to reduce complications and side-effects for women and it is aimed at quality, and not quantity of eggs and embryos. One study comparing a mild treatment (mild ovarian stimulation with GnRH antagonist co-treatment combined with single embryo transfer) to a standard treatment (stimulation with a GnRH agonist long-protocol and transfer of two embryos) came to the result that the proportions of cumulative pregnancies that resulted in term live birth after 1 year were 43.4% with mild treatment and 44.7% with standard treatment. Mild IVF can be cheaper than conventional IVF and with a significantly reduced risk of multiple gestation and OHSS.
When the ovarian follicles have reached a certain degree of development, induction of final oocyte maturation is performed, generally by an injection of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). Commonly, this is known as the "trigger shot." HCG acts as an analogue of luteinising hormone, and ovulation would occur between 38 and 40 hours after a single HCG injection, but the egg retrieval is performed at a time usually between 34 and 36 hours after hCG injection, that is, just prior to when the follicles would rupture. This avails for scheduling the egg retrieval procedure at a time where the eggs are fully mature. HCG injection confers a risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Using a GnRH agonist instead of hCG eliminates the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, but with a delivery rate of approximately 6% less than with hCG.
The eggs are retrieved from the patient using a transvaginal technique called transvaginal oocyte retrieval, involving an ultrasound-guided needle piercing the vaginal wall to reach the ovaries. Through this needle follicles can be aspirated, and the follicular fluid is passed to an embryologist to identify ova. It is common to remove between ten and thirty eggs. The retrieval procedure usually takes between 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the number of mature follicles, and is usually done under conscious sedation or general anaesthesia.
Egg and sperm preparation
In the laboratory, the identified eggs are stripped of surrounding cells and prepared for fertilisation. An oocyte selection may be performed prior to fertilisation to select eggs with optimal chances of successful pregnancy. In the meantime, semen is prepared for fertilisation by removing inactive cells and seminal fluid in a process called sperm washing. If semen is being provided by a sperm donor, it will usually have been prepared for treatment before being frozen and quarantined, and it will be thawed ready for use.
The sperm and the egg are incubated together at a ratio of about 75,000:1 in a culture media in order for the actual fertilisation to take place. A review in 2013 came to the result that a duration of this co-incubation of about 1 to 4 hours results in significantly higher pregnancy rates than 16 to 24 hours. In most cases, the egg will be fertilised during co-incubation and will show two pronuclei. In certain situations, such as low sperm count or motility, a single sperm may be injected directly into the egg using intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). The fertilised egg is passed to a special growth medium and left for about 48 hours until the egg consists of six to eight cells.
In gamete intrafallopian transfer, eggs are removed from the woman and placed in one of the fallopian tubes, along with the man's sperm. This allows fertilisation to take place inside the woman's body. Therefore, this variation is actually an in vivo fertilisation, not an in vitro fertilisation.
The main durations of embryo culture are until cleavage stage (day two to four after co-incubation) or the blastocyst stage (day five or six after co-incubation). Embryo culture until the blastocyst stage confers a significant increase in live birth rate per embryo transfer, but also confers a decreased number of embryos available for transfer and embryo cryopreservation, so the cumulative clinical pregnancy rates are increased with cleavage stage transfer. Transfer day two instead of day three after fertilisation has no differences in live birth rate. There are significantly higher odds of preterm birth (odds ratio 1.3) and congenital anomalies (odds ratio 1.3) among births having from embryos cultured until the blastocyst stage compared with cleavage stage.
Laboratories have developed grading methods to judge oocyte and embryo quality. In order to optimise pregnancy rates, there is significant evidence that a morphological scoring system is the best strategy for the selection of embryos. Since 2009 where the first time-lapse microscopy system for IVF was approved for clinical use, morphokinetic scoring systems has shown to improve to pregnancy rates further.
Embryos are failed by the embryologist based on the amount of cells, evenness of growth and degree of fragmentation. The number to be transferred depends on the number available, the age of the woman and other health and diagnostic factors. In countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, a maximum of two embryos are transferred except in unusual circumstances. In the UK and according to HFEA regulations, a woman over 40 may have up to three embryos transferred, whereas in the USA, younger women may have many embryos transferred based on individual fertility diagnosis. Most clinics and country regulatory bodies seek to minimise the risk of pregnancies carrying multiples, as it is not uncommon for more implantations to take than desired. The embryos judged to be the "best" are transferred to the patient's uterus through a thin, plastic catheter, which goes through her vagina and cervix. Several embryos may be passed into the uterus to improve chances of implantation and pregnancy.
Luteal support is the administration of medication, generally progesterone, progestins or GnRH agonists, to increase the success rate of implantation and early embryogenesis, thereby complementing and/or supporting the function of the corpus luteum. The live birth rate is significantly higher with progesterone for luteal support in IVF cycles with or without intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). Co-treatment with GnRH agonists further improves outcomes, by a live birth rate RD of +16% (95% confidence interval +10 to +22%).