On July 25, 1978, the world’s first “test tube baby” was born. Since then, millions of babies have been conceived through the science of in vitro fertilization (IVF). The primary medical professional involved with creating embryos for IVF is the embryologist.
An embryologist is a fertility specialist who helps create embryos for IVF cycles, which can be transferred in a ‘fresh cycle’ or be frozen for future family building attempts. They are not physicians, but highly educated medical professionals who either hold a masters or doctorate. Embryologists are responsible for managing the care of genetic material used in creating embryos—sperm and ova (eggs)—as well as monitoring the resulting embryos as they develop.
There are four main procedures an embryologist performs or assists with on a daily basis: egg retrievals, embryo transfers (both fresh and frozen), ICSI, and vitrification.
Egg retrievals and embryo transfers are fairly streamlined from the embryologist’s perspective. During an egg retrieval, a doctor (usually a reproductive endocrinologist) collects follicular fluid containing an ovum from the patient’s ovary and then hands it to the embryologist, who is responsible for isolating the ovum and preparing it for insemination. During embryo transfer, the embryologist loads the embryo onto the catheter and passes it off to the RE, who transfers it into the woman’s uterus.
But the lab is where the embryologist's knowledge and expertise really comes into play! It is an embryologist’s job to perform ICSI, or intracytoplasmic sperm injection. In traditional IVF, thousands of swimming sperm are placed in a petri dish with an ovum. Fertilization occurs when one of the sperm embeds its way into the ovum. In ICSI (usually needed in cases of male-factor infertility), a micro-pipette is used to inject a single sperm into the center of the ovum. The embryologist will then monitor the resulting embryo as it develops for about five days before it is viable for transfer.
It is also the embryologist’s responsibility to freeze (or vitrify) excess embryos patients will not be using for their current transfer so they are available for future family building attempts (or to be gifted to an adoptive family!). Embryologists will “grade” the embryos before placing them in frozen storage and make detailed notes and instructions for how to thaw them for an FET.
When thawing embryos for an FET, the embryologist carefully follows the previous instructions and monitors the growth and development of the embryos the day of or a few days before the transfer (depending on the age of the embryo when it was frozen). They will then determine if the embryos are viable for the transfer.
You see, there are a lot of things your embryologist does on your behalf! Success in using donor embryos depends on collaboration between REs, nurses, and the embryologists of your fertility clinic. You may not spend much face-to-face time with your embryologist team, but they are working hard in the lab to ensure the healthy development of your adopted embryos!
To learn more about embryo donation & adoption, visit EmbryoAdoption.org.