The new device will enable fertilization in the womb.
Conventional in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment involves removing eggs from the ovaries, fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory, selecting embryos and returning them to the womb to continue the treatment process.
Previous studies have suggested that babies born as a result of IVF treatment have a lower birth weight. While not a problem in itself, low birth weight has been linked to long-term health, which researchers are keen to improve.
Prof. Nick Macklon, of the Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton, UK, believes long-term health in babies born through IVF could be improved by spending a shorter time in the laboratory. He was involved with the development of the new device, which is called AneVivo.
The technique involves putting egg and sperm cells inside a tiny capsule, which is then placed painlessly into the womb for 24 hours. During this time, embryos begin to develop.
Doctors then remove the device, which is around 1 cm long and 1 mm wide. After 2-4 days, they select the embryos that are healthy enough to be implanted back into the lining of the womb, in the hope of achieving a pregnancy.
Fertilization in the natural environment
Prof. Macklon believes that the device signals "a real breakthrough in IVF treatment," as it enables women to care for an embryo in its earliest stages of development for the first time.
Psychologically, it brings parents-to-be closer to the fertilization process and early embryo development. It could provide health benefits for the baby, as fertilization will occur in the natural environment of the womb with access to nutrients and signals from the mother. It will also reduce exposure to the synthetic culture fluids used in the laboratory.
Prof Macklon, who is also chair in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southampton, says:
"This is a very significant moment in the advancement of fertility treatment in the UK, and we are all extremely excited to be able to offer patients the option of a more natural fertilization process."
Martin Velasco of Anecova, the company that manufactures the device, says that it will allow free passage of fluids, nutrients, endometrial cells and other cellular and non-cellular components to enable interaction between the embryos and the maternal environment.
The AneVivo device was approved by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in September 2015.
Medical News Today recently reported that increasing the number of IVF cycles could boost success rates.