AI Could Help Increase the IVF Success Rate

Algorithms help doctors create better treatment plans for aspiring parents

4 min read
A photo of a display on a tablet and woman’s hand pointing to something.

Embryonic’s algorithm uses deep learning to classify images of the embryos and predict which ones will result in a successful pregnancy.

Embryonics

More than 8 million people have been born worldwide with the help of in vitro fertilization since 1978. In IVF, an egg is fertilized by sperm in the lab; the resulting clump of cells is transferred into a patient’s uterus.

Although IVF techniques have advanced significantly in recent decades, the average success rate is still fairly low: around 45 percent. The percentage steadily declines as women age; a 40-year-old woman has a likely success rate of about 12 percent, according to Pregnancy & IVF Clinics Worldwide.


Embryonics, a startup in Haifa, Israel, aims to raise the IVF success rate with its suite of AI algorithms. The company’s system uses machine learning to help doctors create personalized treatment plans.

“Technology can help fertility doctors make data-driven decisions and answer complex questions in a smarter way,” says Dr. Yael Gold-Zamir, CEO and cofounder. She launched the company in 2018 with David Silver and IEEE Fellow Alex Bronstein.

Gold-Zamir has a medical degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Silver is a machine learning engineer who previously worked for Apple and Intel. Bronstein is a computer science professor at the Technion.

“Embryonics is tackling very unique problems—the quality of human analysis and how to analyze big data so that it is clinically relevant,” Bronstein says.

IVF PRIMER

In IVF, several mature eggs are retrieved from the patient’s ovaries. The eggs are then mixed with sperm in a clinic. The developing embryos grow in the lab for several days until an embryologist chooses one or two to be implanted. (The term embryo technically refers to the developmental stage, when the amniotic sac forms inside the uterus, around two weeks after fertilization. But fertility clinics typically refer to the clusters of cells that they evaluate and implant as embryos.)

Doctors typically choose which embryos to implant based on chromosomal testing and appearance, Silver says. Each is graded based on the number and size of its cells and its rate of development.

But there are several problems with that approach, Silver points out.

“One is that the embryologists’ ability to collect data is limited,” he says. “The amount of data about embryos, past patients, and successful live births available to any single doctor is very small, so it’s hard for them to generalize [about] what indicates that a fertilized egg is viable.”

Another problem is that not all clinics have the same grading system, so two facilities might rate the same embryo differently.

“Technology can help doctors in fertility make data-driven decisions and answer complex questions in a smarter way.”

One of the startup’s algorithms uses deep learning to classify images of the embryos and predict which ones will result in a successful pregnancy. It compares the patient’s medical information, such as age and underlying health conditions, along with images of her embryos to the same data from past patients who had successful or unsuccessful implantations.

Silver and Bronstein used thousands of medical images from around the world to train the AI system. But while developing the algorithm, the engineers found that clinics don’t have the same equipment or use the same settings on microscopes and other tools. The variation affected how the platform classified the embryos.

To overcome that problem, Bronstein and Silver developed their own data-augmentation system for the images. It cancels out environmental factors such as lighting and removes irrelevant parts of the images.

“The system only extracts information that is biologically meaningful, such as cellular structures,” Silver says.

The algorithm is currently being tested in clinics in several countries including Lithuania, Malaysia, and Spain. Doctors were hesitant to use the platform at first, Gold-Zamir says, but since testing it with patients, they have given the company positive feedback. The system has increased the success rate by more than 15 percent, Silver says.

The company has submitted its embryo-classification system to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. It already has been approved in Europe.

Embryonics is developing an algorithm to help doctors prescribe the best hormone-replacement treatment for patients who require it to increase their chances of successful implantations. There are currently no definitive guidelines to help doctors decide which medication is best for patients, Silver says.

“We found that sometimes the same patient goes to several clinics and is prescribed completely different hormone treatment plans,” he says.

To improve decision-making for the treatment plan, the Embryonics team is developing an algorithm that uses machine learning to provide customized recommendations. The algorithm is learning from information about patients as well as a collection of past treatment plans and their outcomes.

“Based on similarities among patients we can do simulations,” Silver says, “and estimate what would have happened if another treatment protocol was chosen.”

“IVF is complicated,” Gold-Zamir says. “It’s not just one decision doctors have to make; it’s a process of sequential decisions. And we need to maximize the potential for the success of all of those decisions.”

FOUNDING

The startup emerged from Gold-Zamir’s belief that technology can help doctors make better decisions and therefore increase IVF success. She says most fertility specialists make decisions about a patient’s treatment options the same way experts did 40 years ago.

“Many complicated decisions are made based on the doctor’s gut feeling, which is based on all the cases they have seen in their career,” she says. The decisions include which embryos are viable, how many should be implanted, and what kind of hormone treatment is most appropriate.

Gold-Zamir was introduced to Bronstein and Silver through a colleague. Although their original goal was simply to publish a research paper, the trio wanted to improve fertility outcomes and decided to commercialize their first algorithm.

Initially, funding for the company came from friends and family, but the team later received a grant from the Israel Innovation Authority, a government agency that helps fund technology startups. Gold-Zamir says the grant enabled them to launch the company.

The founders also participated in the Google for Startups program, which provides companies with funding, mentoring, and networking.

Embryonics now has 17 employees including doctors, bioinformaticians and computer scientists.

Its next goal is to develop algorithms to help doctors choose which embryos to freeze for future IVF cycles as well as noninvasive genetic screening and analysis.

“I love being able to apply the latest and greatest technologies to something that impacts human life in one of the greatest ways possible: starting a family,” Silver says.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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