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A Robot That Helps Make Babies

Micro device developed at U of T could dramatically boost IVF’s effectiveness

Sun’s robot, which is a little larger than a Rubik’s cube and is built around a standard lab microscope, controls a micro device that can hold a sperm and fertilize an egg cell. Unlike traditional IVF, which requires clinicians to be extremely dextrous and precise, this procedure is done automatically with a few mouse clicks by a human operator.

Aspiring parents having trouble conceiving often turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF), but only one in four achieve conception with this challenging procedure. Now, a new IVF technique – created by Yu Sun at U of T’s Advanced Micro and Nanosystems Laboratory – uses a miniature robot that could help increase their odds.

In a trial Sun conducted on hamsters, the procedure achieved fertilization 90 per cent of the time. Many factors affect IVF’s success; the technique’s effectiveness diminishes with the mother’s age, though the use of donor eggs can increase chances. Sun says the high precision of his system can eliminate one other factor causing fluctuating success rates: the diverse skill levels across embryologists.

A human trial of Sun’s system involving four participants took place in 2012 in collaboration with the Toronto Centre for Advanced Reproductive Technology, and resulted in fertilized eggs but no live births. (Sun says that this could be due to the participants’ uterine and hormonal challenges.)

Currently, Sun is working to improve his technology. Making adjustments will require further testing, though, so he plans to seek funding to perform a larger-scale human trial. “IVF clinicians are saying that robotic techniques could revolutionize how IVF is done,” says Sun, the Canada Research Chair in Micro and Nano Engineering Systems. “The end goal is to achieve consistently high success rates in fertilization and live births.”

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