When the first baby was born following IVF treatment just over 35 years ago, it represented one of the most important medical advances ever.
Since then thousands of parents in Sheffield have achieved their wish of having children - with the success rate constantly increasing.
But now experts at the city’s fertility clinics hope to help even more mums and dads fulfil their dreams, after taking delivery of a piece of hi-tech equipment.
The Embryoscope monitors the progress of embryos stored inside incubators, with cameras taking images every 10 minutes.
Previously, embryos were assessed by being removed from storage and examined under a microscope once a day - but now the fragile fertilised eggs can be viewed round-the-clock from the moment of conception, giving scientists the opportunity of selecting embryos with the best chance of a successful pregnancy.
Rachel Cutting, principal embryologist at the Jessop Wing’s assisted conception unit, said the £80,000 time-lapse technology was a ‘very big breakthrough’ - and that staff were eagerly awaiting the first live births helped along by the machine.
“It’s important for us to get a single, healthy baby at the end of IVF,” she said.
“This technology allows us to review the whole of the embryo’s development for the first five days, rather than having a snapshot - it gives us much more information.”
The Embryoscope system is also being used at the Care Fertility clinic in Nether Edge.
“Since we started IVF 20 years ago, we felt the selection of the embryo with the highest potential is a crucial element of success,” said Adel Shaker, the private clinic’s medical director. “We’ve traditionally felt restricted by the fact we’ve only selected them based on how they look at a certain time.”
The incubators store embryos safely at body temperature - 37 degrees Celsius - and monitoring them with cameras means they are not exposed to the air until they are implanted in the womb.
“We get a very good pregnancy rate with standard incubation, but we feel we’ll be able to do even better with the added benefits of the Embryoscope,” said Adel.
A study carried out at another Care clinic in Manchester saw the pregnancy rate increase by a fifth using the new embryo selection method.
“We’re always improving,” said Adel. “When we started 20 years ago we were lucky if our success rate was 30 per cent - we thought that was really good.
“Our results for everybody last year were something like 42 or 43 per cent. It depends on age - if a woman is 35 and it’s her first treatment it can be really high.”
Rachel Smith, lab manager at the Nether Edge clinic, said prospective parents are given the opportunity to watch videos of their embryos, captured by the system - rivalling the traditional ultrasound scan photo, until now couples’ earliest glimpse of their child.
“The majority of parents watch it immediately, there aren’t many that wait until the pregnancy,” she said.
“We’re always very honest about people’s chances. Hopefully they can now understand the process their embryos have gone through.”
The fertility clinics also use computer software that analyses each embryo’s behaviour, helping staff build up a bank of data to make their decisions even more precise. The Jessop unit uses a system called Primovision, and Care Fertility has its own equivalent called Care Maps.
“One in six people need help, and studies show that now there is one child in every school class born from IVF,” Rachel said.
“We’re getting better at breaking down the stigma of IVF, and the embarrassment around it. What we want to do is have one baby at a time - historically there has been a one in four chance of having twins or triplets, which puts a lot of babies into neonatal units.
“Hopefully it will save the NHS money and reduce the burden of twin pregnancies.”
Most patients at the Jessop wing’s assisted conception unit now have their embryos monitored using time-lapse equipment.
Rachel Cutting, the clinic’s chief embryologist, said NHS patients do not pay extra for the privilege.
“We identify patients who are most suitable - it depends on how many eggs they gather,” she said.
“We’ve had quite a few pregnancies, but now we’re waiting for the first live birth.”
According to national guidelines brought in last year, women aged under 40 can be offered up to three free cycles of IVF treatment, if they meet certain criteria, while women aged between 40 and 42 can be eligible for one free cycle - but not all NHS commissioning groups fund so many free treatments.
Generally, IVF involves mixing sperm with collected eggs in a laboratory. Later they are checked to see if any have been fertilised - eggs may even need to be injected individually with a single sperm.
Fertilised eggs grow for up to five days in the lab before the best embryos are transferred to the womb.
Meanwhile, at Care Fertility in Nether Edge, patients pay an extra £775 to use the Embryoscope, on top of the average charge of £3,500.
“A lot of couples think it’s worth it,” said medical director Adel Shaker.