We know that several startups are working on automating in vitro fertilization (IVF), a multimillion-dollar industry where trained embryologists delicately handle sperm and eggs using ultra-thin hollow needles under a microscope, but one such startup, Overture Life, has developed a sperm-injecting robot that they claim is an initial step toward automating IVF, potentially making the procedure less expensive and far more common than it is today.
The special robot was designed by engineers in Barcelona and sent to New York City, where they put it back together, and assembled a microscope, a mechanized needle, a tiny petri dish, and a laptop. One of the engineers used a Sony PlayStation 5 controller to position a robotic needle, which eyed a human egg through a camera and then moved forward on its own, penetrating the egg and dropping off a single sperm cell. The robot was used to fertilize more than a dozen eggs, resulting in healthy embryos and two baby girls, who researchers claim are the first people born after fertilization by a “robot.”
Other startups, such as AutoIVF, IVF 2.0, Conceivable Life Sciences, and Fertilis, have similar aims of automating IVF and making it more accessible to patients who can’t afford the high costs of IVF treatment. Overture has raised about $37 million from investors, including Khosla Ventures and Susan Wojcicki, the former CEO of YouTube.
The goal of automating IVF is to make a lot more babies — about 500,000 children are born through IVF globally each year, but most people who need help having kids don’t have access to fertility medicine or can’t pay for it. The main challenge facing IVF is that it’s been 40 years of outstanding science and really mediocre systems engineering, according to David Sable, a former fertility doctor who now runs an investment fund. While an all-in-one fertility machine doesn’t yet exist, even automating parts of the process (like injecting sperm, freezing eggs, or nurturing embryos), could make IVF less expensive and eventually support more radical innovations like for example, gene editing or even artificial wombs.
Even so, fully automating IVF won’t be easy, as the process involves a dozen procedures — and Overture’s robot so far performs only one of them, and only partially. Other doctors are still skeptical that robots can, or should, replace embryologists anytime soon, as humans are far better than a machine at delicately handling sperm and eggs. One fertility doctor developed a robot that dispenses tiny droplets of growth medium for embryos to grow in, calling it a “low-risk” way to introduce automation to the lab. One obstacle to automating conception is that so-called microfluidics, another name for lab-on-a-chip technology, hasn’t lived up to its hype.
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