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“UK’s fertility sector is running out of space” – Tackling cryostorage with tech

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Leading embryologist and VP of clinical strategy at TMRW Life Sciences Cynthia Hudson talks to Health Tech World about the future of fertility in a world of advancing health tech…

Each year, more and more families are created thanks to advances in reproductive health technologies like in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and cryopreservation.

It has been transformative for all struggling to achieve parenthood, including easing that option for LGBTQIA+ couples and single people.

The ability to freeze eggs opened the parenthood door to an entirely new class of people – those that want to make sure they can have that parenthood option later in life.

Today, a growing number of IVF cycles use eggs, sperm, and or embryos that have been previously frozen (and often stored for long periods). These precious cells are flash-frozen in the laboratory to -196 Celsius in an ultra-rapid procedure called vitrification and then kept until needed.

Traditionally they are stored in dewars (small portable tanks filled with liquid nitrogen) that maintain the cells at cryogenic temperatures (below -150C), allowing eggs, sperm, and embryos to remain viable for future use.

IVF birth rates rocketed

IVF birth rates in 2019 were three times higher than in 1991. As a result of these incredible advances, the demand for IVF is rapidly increasing. It is likely that as many as 10% of all children will be conceived through IVF in many parts of the world in the near future.

This encouraging news is the payoff of years of research and development into improving techniques, equipment, and lab processes. However, the increased demand for IVF and rising trends of cryopreservation have left the UK’s fertility sector confronted with a new problem – managing all that storage. 

The “huge” cryostorage issue

With the massive growth in the fertility industry (demand-driven) and accelerating with the introduction of vitrification, the quantity of frozen specimens that clinics are managing has grown exponentially.

Simply put, fertility clinics are running out of storage space and time. Manual systems and infrastructure implemented to store specimens can no longer cope. These systems worked when clinics dealt with a couple of hundred patients, but when the numbers jump into the thousands, they start to break down. 

Fertility clinics are laboratories and treatment centres that have become unintentional long-term storage facilities. Presently, clinics are literally bursting at the seams, with rooms packed with tanks full of frozen eggs, sperm, and embryos.

Clinics have been creatively expanding their internal cryostorage areas and sometimes have had to convert non-clinical areas to dedicate to this task.

On any given day, a clinic can actively manage and store tens of thousands of frozen fertility cells, all while carrying out procedures and supporting patients in creating families – a hugely overwhelming task.

Scientists, not storage experts

As embryologists, we are scientists – not storage experts – that need to focus on what we do best: building families.  

The practice of hand labelling specimens and recording storage information in insecure systems – like paper and spreadsheets – is not the best way to safely scale clinic operations. According to a survey conducted by TMRW in March 2020, 27.8% of embryologists reported being unable to locate, identify, or were unsure of specimens in their clinics. 

Patients need reassurance and transparency on how and where their precious cells are being stored, and clinics need to be able to focus on more clinically pressing tasks. So what is the solution? How can technology support clinics with growing cryostorage needs?

The solution: Technology-enabled cryostorage 

Historically, clinics have always kept all of their frozen inventory on-site. As the industry grows and the clinics face increased demand, this paradigm is no longer sustainable.

Clinics are also now treating an incrementing percentage of patients whose sole purpose is to preserve their tissues for the long term, not actively trying to have a baby, which increases the clinics’ cryostorage challenge. .

A technology-enabled cryostorage solution would provide much-needed infrastructure and preserve the ability for clinics to maintain transparency to their cryoinventory, regardless of whether it is kept in-house or moved offsite.

The company has been delivering that in-clinic solution and raises the standard of care for how cells are stored and managed – allowing the clinics to focus on their family-building work and science.

TMRW has an offsite solution for clinics and patients alike, and recently opened a fertility specimen cryostorage facility which uses its proprietary technology in New York to address these issues

By moving to robotic and RFID technology-based storage solutions, clinicians and patients can gain greater peace of mind and oversight of their specimens, with real-time data at their fingertips.

As the projected number of IVF births continues to rise, clinics need to adopt scalable and innovative solutions to meet the demand. Standardising and automating specimen management helps clinics to safely scale while allowing embryologists the time and focus required to help patients pursue their dreams of parenthood.

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