When embryos are grown in the lab, they are housed in incubators where oxygen and temperature levels are closely metered to mimic that of the fallopian tubes. The moment embryos are exposed to normal atmospheric conditions, they lose energy fighting to survive. The quality of the incubators, and their atmospheric conditions, dearly matters. If you think all laboratories buy the right incubators, and maintain them, you’re wrong.
High vs. Low Oxygen
The amount of oxygen in the air we breath is around 20%, but within our bodies, and where embryos thrive, it is closer to 5%. Years ago, laboratories started dropping the atmosphere in their incubators to 5%, and started seeing better results. Amazingly, not all laboratories have followed suit and today, up to a third still culture embryos within incubators at 20% oxygen levels. In our minds, this is a first-order red flag.
Crowded Versus Uncrowded Incubators
Risk of Hurting the Sample
Embryos often need to be checked, or have their culture media changed, which means the embryologist has to open the door to the incubator. Every time the incubator door is opened, the oxygen level within the incubator rises quickly, and the temperature drops. Many “big box incubators” look like college-dorm room fridges (minus the beer): they have one big door, and when it swings open, outside air rushes in, drops the temperature, and everything is impacted. Even if the door is open for just five seconds, it takes nearly half an hour for conditions to return to normal. Now if your embryos are kept in a “big box” incubator with 10 other samples, your embryos will be 10x needlessly exposed to the outside elements, as each sample needs to be checked. If your sample is going to be housed in a “big box” incubator, request there be as few as samples as possible in there with yours. And if you can pick the positioning of your samples, multiple embryologists have told us that the front middle shelf is best.
Alternatively, “desktop” incubators are smaller in size, and some allow for each sample to have its own chamber. Therefore, your sample is not likely to be disturbed when the embryologist needs to check on other samples. Not only is your sample less likely to be disturbed in a “desktop” incubator, when it does need to be checked, conditions in the incubator return to normal 5 – 6x more quickly.
The other major risk patient’s run when their sample is stored with many others, is that their sample will get confused with another. That could translate into your sample getting the wrong amount of care, or being accidentally transferred to the wrong patient.