The optimization of in-vitro culture conditions and the selection of the embryo(s) with the highest developmental competence are essential components in an ART program. Culture conditions are manifold and they underlie not always evidence-based research but also trends entering the IVF laboratory. At the moment, the idea of using sequential media according to the embryo requirements has been given up in favor of the use of single step media in an uninterrupted manner due to practical issues such as time-lapse incubators. The selection of the best embryo is performed using morphological and, recently, also morphokinetic criteria. In this review, we aim to demonstrate how the ART field may benefit from the use of microfluidic technology, with a particular focus on specific steps, namely the embryo in-vitro culture, embryo scoring and selection, and embryo cryopreservation. We first provide an overview of microfluidic and microfabricated devices, which have been developed for embryo culture, characterization of pre-implantation embryos (or in some instances a combination of both steps) and embryo cryopreservation. Building upon these existing platforms and the various capabilities offered by microfluidics, we discuss how this technology could provide integrated and automated systems, not only for real-time and multi-parametric monitoring of embryo development, but also for performing the entire ART procedure. Although microfluidic technology has been around for a couple of decades already, it has still not made its way into the clinics and IVF laboratories, which we discuss in terms of: (i) a lack of user-friendliness and automation of the microfluidic platforms, (ii) a lack of robust and convincing validation using human embryos and (iii) some psychological threshold for embryologists and practitioners to test and use microfluidic technology. In spite of these limitations, we envision that microfluidics is likely to have a significant impact in the field of ART, for fundamental research in the near future and, in the longer term, for providing a novel generation of clinical tools.
- in-vitro embryo culture, embryo scoring, embryo cryopreservation, microfluidics, integration