Women’s Wellness ,  Fertility & IVF

"Shoebox IVF" may give hope for infertile couples

December 21, 2014

Researchers pioneer more affordable IVF system

"Shoebox IVF" may give hope for infertile couples

A pared-down in vitro fertilisation (IVF) system that fits into a shoebox and utilizes cheap ingredients you might find in a kitchen cupboard may be the solution that infertile couples the world over are looking for.

High costs traditionally associated with fertility treatments render them unaffordable to most couples. The biggest cost involved in the procedure is the high price of sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs where the in-vitro egg fertilisation takes place.

To address this problem, Belgian obstetrician Dr Willem Ombelet and embryologist Jonathan Van Blerkom pioneered a cheap, shoebox-sized portable lab, containing nothing more than an aluminium heating block and a pair of test tubes.


Researchers recreate lab conditions

By mixing baking soda and citric acid to give off CO2, researchers were able to create the optimal levels of CO2 concentration and alkalinity that are present in an IVF lab. They mixed precise quantities of citric acid and baking soda in one test tube; then, the CO2 bubbles this created were fed into a second test tube containing a culture medium for the embryo.

To maintain the perfect temperature for egg fertilisation and embryo development, Van Blerkom experimented with various low-tech methods, including placing the test tubes in a thermos at the right temperature, as well as in an aluminium-heating block.  

Once an ideal atmosphere is created and stabilised, the egg and the sperm are injected into the test tube containing the culture medium. The next day, the test tube goes under a microscope to see if it contains an embryo. If a successful embryo is created, it is transferred from the test tube to the woman’s womb after about six days.


More affordable than traditional IVF

Human trials of the system have been conducted inside sterile laboratories; however, a self-contained unit to house the system is currently being developed for hospitals or health care systems that don’t have advanced sterile lab facilities. This would provide heated, sterile air and space for doctors in less developed areas to examine the embryo under a microscope.

Trials for the system began in Belgium in 2012.  17 healthy babies have been born using the system since then, and the fertilisation and pregnancy rates are similar to expensive IVF methods at a 70 to 80 percent lower cost. According to Dr Ombelet, each IVF cycle using the system costs less than 200 euros (US$272), not including staff and medication costs, which vary from country to country.

"With very low dose medication schemes we hope to perform IVF in developing countries for less than 500 euros (US$681),” Dr Ombelet says.


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