One of the most overlooked and yet crucial aspects of choosing a fertility clinic is the quality of the assisted reproductive technology (ART) laboratory. Your clinic may have an in-house lab (such as SCRC’s embryology lab) or outsource this part of the process to a larger hospital laboratory, but in either case, they should be able to provide you with details about the lab’s operation. Understanding what to look for and the kind of questions you should ask about the IVF lab will help you ensure that you are getting the best possible care.
What is an IVF lab?
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a process which occurs over a number of weeks. After an IVF patient has done all the hard work of self-administering fertility medications and undergoing the egg retrieval procedure, the focus of the cycle moves to the fertility lab. This is where the “IVF” part of your treatment actually happens. The IVF lab is where fertilization occurs, where the embryos are cultured before transfer, and where delicate, highly sophisticated procedures such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), assisted hatching, and genetic testing are performed. A full service IVF lab will also have the ability to safely freeze and store eggs, sperm, and embryo.
Because the lab plays such an enormous role in fertility treatment, it should be given just as much attention as any other aspect of a potential clinic. The lab is an often invisible factor which deeply affects IVF treatment, and it can make or break the success of a cycle.
What makes an IVF lab exceptional?
There are several significant elements which separate an average vs. an excellent IVF lab. All of these points are meaningful in the context of optimal embryo growth and development, so you should feel free to dig deep with your questions when you are considering your options.
Highly experienced and qualified laboratory director and staff.
The embryologists and technicians who handle your eggs, sperm, and embryos should be as highly experienced as the clinical professionals overseeing your treatment. This is sensitive and technically demanding work which requires the highest level of expertise from everyone involved. Ask about training and certification. Who runs the lab, and what are their qualifications? Do they hold board certification in embryology? Is there an ongoing education and certification process for lab techs?
Up-to-date lab processes and protocols.
The way embryos are handled, incubated, and stored has a tremendous impact on how they will develop. Your embryology lab should have strict protocols to govern everything that takes place within its walls. How is embryo development monitored? Is the lab clear on best practices? Do they continually review the research and update the way the lab operates based on the newest advances in embryology? What are their standards for quality assurance in all lab tasks? Ask about their chain of custody protocol for handling eggs, sperm, and embryos. How do they ensure that the integrity of each patient’s specimens is preserved?
High-quality equipment and supplies.
Any workplace is only as good as its tools, and this is particularly true in the highly specialized environment of an IVF lab. Embryology requires some extremely sophisticated pieces of biomedical equipment. A well-equipped lab will have several types of powerful microscopes, state-of-the-art embryo incubators, and IVF microtools. In order to grow and develop properly, an embryo requires a complex set of environmental controls at every stage. What kind of incubators, culture media and handling apparatus are used in the lab? How have they been tested to measure their impact on developing embryos? Does the lab offer advanced options such as time-lapse photography incubators? Does it have the capability to incubate embryos up to the blastocyst stage?
High-quality air filtration system.
The air quality in an embryology lab has an enormous effect on the health and viability of embryos. Contaminants can be deadly, and common impurities in the air such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), microbes or even perfumes can seriously harm an embryo’s development. Does the lab hold certification as a clean room? If so, up to what level? Ask about the lab’s heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) units. What filters are used? Look for charcoal and high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters. How often does the air cycle? The units in an IVF lab should generate enough air pressure that the air in the room is entirely replaced a minimum of 20 times an hour.
Careful light and temperature control.
Embryos are exquisitely sensitive to changes in ambient light and temperature as they develop. Both of these factors are profoundly important. What measures does the laboratory take to control the embryo’s environment at every point of handling and incubation?
Dr. Jason Barritt is the Chief Scientific Officer, Laboratory Director and Research Scientist for ART Reproductive Center in Beverly Hills. He explains what makes their center stand out in this video.
These specialized embryology labs have a vital role to play in IVF, and access to a great IVF lab can greatly raise your chances of success in your fertility treatments. Once you know what to look for in an IVF lab, you should feel confident discussing this topic with any potential clinic. It can be intimidating to feel that you must evaluate the quality of a lab: the highly sophisticated science and technology involved may seem far beyond your experience and expertise.
It’s important to know that you don’t need to understand everything about ART in order to make a call about whether the lab is the right choice for your treatment. All you need to do is ask a few questions, so don’t be afraid to interview potential clinics on the specifics of their arrangements. You deserve the best care at each stage of your treatment, and that includes all of the procedures performed within the IVF lab.