Next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques have allowed scientists to sequence DNA at faster rates than ever before, and in the process they have begun to revolutionize fields as disparate as anthropology and botany.
The technology is also now being used to screen embryos for in vitro fertilization (IVF), and the first child to ever pass though that screening process was recently born in the United States.
Developed in the UK at the University of Oxford, the embryo screening process is designed to scan the embryo for genetic abnormalities that could lead to a miscarriage, defective genes or mitochondrial DNA mutations.
“Next generation sequencing provides an unprecedented insight into the biology of embryos,” said Dr. Dagan Wells at Oxford’s Biomedical Research Centre, who helped to develop the screening process and reported on the child birth at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.
The screening process could have massive implications for women seeking IVF as about only 1 in 3 attempts are successful. Chromosomal abnormalities often prevent the successful implantation of an embryo in the womb or the pregnancy being successfully carried to full term. These problems often increase with the woman’s age.
Some fertility clinics already offer an embryo screening service, but it typically adds thousands of dollars to the procedure. The NGS test is expected to be considerably cheaper and quicker, producing results in about 24 hours.
“Current tests are adding a significant amount of money on to an already expensive procedure and that is limiting access; most patients are having to pay for this out of pocket themselves,” Wells told BBC News.
“What our technique does is it gives you the number of chromosomes and other biological information about the embryo at a low cost, probably about two thirds of the price of existing methods of screening.”
According to reports, Marybeth Scheidts and her husband David Levy had been trying to conceive a child for four years before visiting the Pennsylvania clinic where the groundbreaking IVF procedure took place.
Three of the 13 embryos produced at the clinic were healthy, meaning the odds were against doctors picking a good embryo without the screening process.
“It takes its toll, there were some days I would break down and cry, I wanted to hide in my bedroom and say stop,” she told the BBC. “Then to see him … all this hard work and we have finally got our little tiny human being named Connor.”
Dr. Michael Glassner, a doctor at Main Line Health System where the procedure took place, said he expects this type of embryo screen to become more common in the coming years.
“If you have ever sat across the desk from a patient that has failed or is in that crossroads of thinking of another cycle and you look in their eyes where they are barely able to hold on to their hopes and dreams, anything that is so significantly going to impact pregnancy rates is going to become standard,” said Glassner.
“So I think five years from now you fast forward, yes I think it will be standard.”