June 8, 2023

Automating reproduction is just over the horizon

IVF is expensive and few can afford it. So scientists and investors are working hard on new technologies which will automate the process.

According to a survey of IVF start-ups in MIT Technology Review by Antonio Regalado, only about 500,000 IVF babies are born around the world annually. Investors are keen to see that number increase. “How do we go from half a million babies a year to 30 million?’” wonders David Sable, a former IVF doctor who now runs an investment fund. “You can’t if you run each lab like a bespoke, artisanal kitchen, and that is the challenge facing IVF. It’s been 40 years of outstanding science and really mediocre systems engineering.”

Already, Regalado reports, the first babies conceived by a robot have been born. Some scientists look forward to automating the whole process of fertilising eggs and nurturing embryos.

If costs come down, the IVF market could grow enormously.

“It’s nearly certain that the IVF industry could grow to five or 10 times its current size. In the US, fewer than 2% of kids are born this way, but in Denmark, where the procedure is free and encouraged, the figure is near 10%.”

“That is the true demand,” says Alan Murray, an entrepreneur with a background in software and co-working spaces who cofounded Conceivable with his business partner, Joshua Abram. “The challenge is that these wonderful rich and eccentric countries can do it, but the rest of the world cannot. But they have demonstrated the true human need,” he says. “What they have done with money, we need to do with technology.”

And new techniques could become available:

For some proponents of IVF automation, an even wilder future awaits. By giving over conception to machines, automation could speed the introduction of still-controversial techniques such as genome editing, or advanced methods of creating eggs from stem cells.

Although Munné says Overture Life has no plans to modify the genetic makeup of children, he allows it would be a simple matter to use the sperm-injecting robot for that purpose, since it could dispense precise amounts of gene-editing chemicals into an egg. “It should be very easy to add to the machine,” he says.

Even more speculative technology is on the horizon. Fertility machines could gradually evolve into artificial wombs, with children gestated in scientific centers until birth. “I do believe we are going to get there,” says Thompson. “There is credible evidence that what we thought was impossible is not so impossible.”