Embryo Quality & Embryo “Competence” – Part One: Planting a Good Seed

17 Sep
Ask Dr. Sher A Question

“At 45 years of age the incidence of
is likely to be nine in ten.”

Several weeks ago, I posted an article about endometrial receptivity and its effect on IVF success. This, as I noted, was the “Soil” component of the “Seed/Soil” equation. I turn now to the “seed” component of the equation – the embryo.

This will be the first of three posts outlining the factors that contribute to embryo “competence” (the ability of an embryo to make a healthy baby), and the current methods of genetic testing in the IVF setting.

Today’s post will discuss the intrinsic factors that contribute to (or detract from) embryo competence.

First, a brief background discussion….

If an embryo reaching the endometrial cavity either fails to implant or is lost soon after implantation (i.e., a chemical pregnancy or miscarriage) it will, in the vast majority of cases (about 80%), be due to an inherent defect that has rendered it incapable of propagating a viable conceptus – a condition we term “embryo incompetence”.  In only about one of five such reproductive losses would the cause be attributable to “poor endometrial receptivity”.

What is important to bear in mind is that it is primarily the genetic/chromosomal integrity of the egg (rather than the sperm) which determines embryo competence. Given the fact that egg numerical chromosomal integrity declines with advancing maternal age, it is hardly surprising that embryo competence also deteriorates in lock step with advancing age. Research has shown that about half of all embryos derived through fertilization of the eggs of a young woman (under 35 years) are likely to be incompetent, while at 45 years of age the incidence is likely to be nine in ten. This serves to underscore and explain why both spontaneous pregnancy and IVF success rates plummet, and miscarriage rates virtually treble, by the time the woman reaches her mid-forties.

It is thus important that the following intrinsic factors which control embryo competence be considered:

  1. The relative influence of egg versus sperm: In order for an embryo to be “competent” it must have its full component of 46 chromosomes (i.e., euploid). Any irregularity in the numerical chromosomal integrity (i.e. aneuploidy) of the embryo will inevitably result in “reproductive failure”, manifesting as failure to conceive, miscarriage, or an aneuploidy- birth defect such as Down Syndrome. While it is the chromosomal integrity (karyotype) of the egg which exerts the predominant influence on embryo’s karyotype and thus its “competency”, the chromosomal integrity of the sperm also plays a role, albeit a far lesser one when the man is fertile. However, in cases of sperm dysfunction, this influence can be significantly greater.
  2. The influence of the chromosomal structure of the egg and sperm: The structural chromosomal integrity of the embryo also influences its “competency”.  In some cases, part of one or more of the embryo’s chromosomes may be missing (a “deletion”). Sometimes during fertilization, parts of one or more chromosomes detach and reattach to another chromosome (a “translocation”).  Such structural changes can emanate from a sperm and/or an egg defect, but the degree to which either gamete contributes, and what role paternal or maternal age, environmental, or genetic factors may play in its genesis are presently poorly understood. Unless specifically looked for at the time of preimplantation genetic sampling (PGS) of the embryo, such structural chromosomal aberrations might go undetected.
  3. The role of genetic and metabolic factors: There can be little doubt that genetic and metabolic factors also impact embryo competency, but how and to what extent such influence is exerted remains poorly understood. To make matters worse, they are, by and large, neither identifiable nor quantifiable through any currently available diagnostic methodologies. This having been said, the potential exists for the future application of human genomics to embryo evaluation, and with it will likely come a new-found ability improve to better evaluate “embryo competency”

NEXT: Check back next week, when my post will focus on clinical considerations – what your RE can do to optimize embryo competence.


  • M&P says:

    Hello Dr. Sher,

    I am turning 42 in june and my wife just turned 41. We had 2 failed fresh and 2 frozen cycles. Most recent cycle which we wanted to go for chromosomal testing on blastocyst was not done because none of embryos reached blastocyst stage and resulted in cycle abandonment. we get lot of eggs during stimulation but they we don’t get success.
    On internet there is information about DHEA supplement taken for 3-4 months resulting in remarkably improved egg and embryo quality. We are so confused and were wondering how much evidence or science is behind these supplements.

    • Geoffrey Sher says:

      You need to consider seriously, doing Embryo Banking with Staggered IVF (see below) before it is too late. AND in my opinion, older women and those who have diminished ovarian reserve should not use DHEA. It can in my opinion compromise egg/embryo quality.

      Please go to the home page of this blog, http://www.IVFauthority.com . When you get there look for a “search bar” in the upper right hand column. Then type in the following subjects into the bar, click and this will take you to all the relevant articles I posted there.
      1. “An Individualized Approach to Ovarian stimulation” (posted on November 22nd, 2010)

      2. Ovarian Stimulation for IVF: The most important determinant of IVF Outcome” (Nov. 2103)

      3. “Agonist/Antagonist Conversion Protocol”

      4. “Nutritional Supplements in IVF”

      5. “Factors affecting egg/embryo quality”

      6. “Embryo Implantation………” (Part-1 and Part- 2—-Posted August 2012)

      7. “Traveling for IVF from Out of State/Country– The Process at SIRM-Las Vegas” (posted on March, 21st 2012)

      8.“A personalized, stepwise approach to IVF at SIRM”; Parts 1 & 2 (posted March, 2012)

      9. “IVF success: Factors that influence outcome”

      10. “Use of the Birth Control Pill in IVF”

      11.”Staggered IVF”

      12.“Embryo Banking”

      13.“Array CGH versus metaphase CGH in IVF patients….’

      Consider calling 800-780-7437 or 702-699-7437 to arrange a Skype with me so we can discuss your case in detail.

      Finally, perhaps you would be interested in accessing my new book (recently released). It is the 4th edition (and a re-write) of “In Vitro Fertilization, the ART of Making Babies”. The book is available through “Amazon.com” as a down-load or in book form. It can also be obtained from most bookstores.

      Geoff Sher

      P.S: Please go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp3GYuqn2eM&feature=youtu.be
      To view a video-tutorial by Linda Vignapiano RN, Clinical Manager at SIRM-Las Vegas.

      • M&P says:

        Hi Dr. Sher,
        Her Ovarian reserve is good and all hormonal and other tests are normal. Our embryos in last cycle did not go to balstocyst stage on day 5. They were morulas which withered on day 6. Only during our first attempt at Henry Ford we got 1 blascyst but that also didnot result in pregnancy.

        I was wondering how staggered IVF with embryo banking can help us when chances of getting blastocyst on day 5 are low.

        • Geoffrey Sher says:

          The first step will be to re-evaluate and try to improve the protocol of stimulation which in turn could improve egg/embryo quality. Remember it is the quality of the egg (much more than the sperm that influences embryo “competency” and embryos that fail to get to the blastocyst stage are abnormal.

          Geoff Sher

          • M&P says:

            Hi Dr. Sher,
            Thanks for your earlier replies.

            I recently came across article on use of human growth hormone and endometrial co – culture for repeated IVF failures for women over 40 yrs.

            I was wondering what are your thoughts on their usage.


          • Geoffrey Sher says:

            I honestly do NOT believe that it helps in poor responders.

            Geoff Sher

  • Mary says:

    Hello Dr. Sher,
    What is your believe in “Acupunture” during fertility treatment. Is there any
    foods or vitamins to help improve Embryo competency before treatment?

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