IVF is becoming increasingly important as fertility and birth rates fall in developed countries. Ensuring patients get the right treatment is important both from an emotional and financial perspective. It relies on the accurate equipment to support the correct diagnosis.
Surprisingly, in sensitive area of andrology - the study of human reproduction - the testing of sperm for properties such as size, number and motility is not consistently controlled. One parameter key to successful testing is temperature. It is vital to test sperm at normal body temperature, ie, 37˚C. If the temperature is too low, sperm motility is reduced; if the temperature is too high, the sperm may be irreparably damaged. Either way, the diagnosis may be incorrect leading to the wrong treatment being offered. Testing is performed using a basic light microscope which is used to observe the sperm performance on a heated glass slide. Control of the temperature has been seen as arbitrary from lab to lab and hence there can be a wide variance in reported results.
Now one of the leaders in temperature controlled microscopy, Linkam Scientific Instruments, is working with Cambridge IVF to develop new instrumentation and protocols to improve the reliability of sperm testing.
Mr Stephen Harbottle is the Consultant Embryologist and Person Responsible at Cambridge IVF. With more than 20 years direct hands-on experience in embryology and diagnostic andrology, Stephen has observed the inconsistencies of testing and was very happy to be directly involved in advising Linkam Scientific Instruments on the development of suitable instrumentation to reliably test sperm.
He observed the problem: “There is a real need for consistency of testing in andrology laboratories. At present, there is inconsistency with labs performing tests using non-validated or out of date procedures with limited regulation or control. Equipment is not standardised; it is not being calibrated and validated against reference systems or used in accordance with best practice recommendations in some test centres. Testing should be done to a validated standard operating procedure and labs performing tests should ensure they are registered to an appropriate external quality assurance scheme.”
For Linkam, the challenge was one that required a system that could easily maintain a user-defined temperature between ambient and 60°C to ±0.2°C, while allowing high resolution observation. The system would also require easy calibration, be of low entry price and have minimal running costs.
Working with Mr Harbottle, Linkam's engineering team have come up with an innovative approach which incorporates a simple and visual temperature validation using a specially developed liquid crystal temperature sensitive slide to enable temperature calibration.