Some 7.3 million Americans are infertile during their reproductive years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With such staggering statistics, it isn’t surprising that more and more hopeful parents are now choosing newer, more sophisticated treatments, such as IVF- or “In Vitro Fertilization”. As one of the most popular options for infertile soon-to-be parents, IVF seems to incorporate simple concepts and straightforward procedures to create an equally healthy embryo for every parent and a squeaky-clean image. However, new research suggests that variations in lab plate mediums that embryos are created in may play a role in your future child’s health.
To conduct IVF, potential mothers are usually given fertility drugs to boost egg production before undergoing a minor surgery to retrieve eggs. By placing a chosen egg and sperm together on a special lab plate medium, fertilization can happen in as few as two hours. But despite the typically rapid rates of fertilization, each embryo is first left on the lab plate medium in an environmentally controlled chamber for around 3-5 days before implantation into a uterus. This short period of growth, which had previously been dismissed as trivial, is now proving to be an important role in the growth and development of the embryo – and research is now pointing to the variety of growth mediums as the major factor.
The recipes of these mediums, called culture media, are a closely kept industry secret. Companies often release the list of components used to create different types of media, but don’t normally release the proportions of how these components are used, making it hard for potential parents to choose between the different mediums their embryo will grow in. Thus, researchers from Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands decided to test if a different medium could consequently impact the development and growth of an embryo, starting with the enlistment of over 830 volunteer couples. Each couple, who was already prepared to undergo IVF treatment, was then randomly given one of two popular IVF culture mediums- either a “G5 media formula” or a “HTF media formula”. Results linked the 417 G5-based embryos to significantly higher rates of successful implantation, as well as higher live birth rates- but also showed startling lowered birth weights when compared to the 419 HVF-based embryos.
While a lower infant weight may seem trivial, 1995 clinical trials from the National Institute of Health prove otherwise. Although most low birth weight infants seemed to be healthy, the group generally had higher rates of subnormal growth, illnesses, and even neurodevelopmental problems. Others experienced mild problems in cognition, attention, and neuromotor functioning. Furthermore, long term follow-up studies indicated that the adverse consequences of a low birth weight were apparent even in adolescence, showing that infant birth weight may play a larger role in an individual’s future health than previously thought.
Together, these results suggest that the type of culture medium chosen in the early stages of fertilization may have a lasting effect on babies born by IVF; and although a short 3 to 5 day period may seem inconsequential, this essential period of time may play a significant role in an embryo’s future health. However, it is important to note that many clinics have agreed to stop using G5 medium altogether, leaving over 20 different types of IVF to choose from on the market. For researchers to augment their knowledge on the potential effects of variation in culture media, IVF culture media companies need to first disclose what exactly is in each attention-worthy medium. With cooperation from both culture media companies and researchers internationally, many potential parents can hope for a clearer, more comprehensive listing of what IVF medium is best for their future embryo.

Photo Credits: By Dr.jayesh amin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons