Lasers to the aid of embryos

Lasers, once the weapon of choice for writers of science fiction, then increasingly the everyday tool of the surgeon, have found yet another astonishing role -- as catalysts to aid the very beginnings of life itself.

They are being used for precision drilling the 'shell' of a human egg -- a membrane an average 18 millionths of a metre thick (six times smaller than the smallest object visible to the human eye).

Delegates at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Bologna, Italy, heard today (Tuesday 27 June) from Hungarian and Belgian fertility experts how lasers are making it easier for embryos to implant in the lining of a woman's womb and turning pre-implantation genetic diagnosis into a quicker, more effective procedure.

Improving pregnancy rates and implantation of embryos in the uterus are the biggest challenges in IVF, according to Dr Katalin Kany of the St John Hospital in Budapest, Hungary.

Many IVF failures occur because the fertilised embryo, still encased in its eggshell (a gelatinous protective coat called the zona pellucida), does not manage to embed itself in the lining of the womb. So Dr Kanyó, and colleague Dr Janos Konc, turned to lasers to give the embryo a helping hand. They use an infrared diode laser beam to make a 'tunnel' in the shell immediately before the embryo is transferred to the uterus. Two to three 20-30 millisecond bursts of energy are all that are needed to ensure the embryo's escape and maximise its chance of implantation. From hatching to transferring the embryo to the uterus takes only one minute.

Dr Kanyó told the conference that assisted hatching can be done using mechanical, chemical or laser methods but they were convinced that laser hatching was best. Her technique is novel because the tunnel is made by applying the laser at an angle to the embryo so that only the edge of the beam is in contact with the shell, producing a hole with a diameter between 4.5 and 20

Contact: Margaret Willson

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