Turner reflects on a quarter century of IVF lab milestones
Austin, Texas, Mar. 11, 2016 – Embryologist Tom Turner was recruited to Austin in 1993 by Dr. Thomas Vaughn, the Texas Fertility Center founder who established the city’s first IVF program at St. David’s. Ovation Fertility Austin IVF has since grown to employ seven embryologists and a high complexity lab director, increasing the number of IVF cycles from 95 in 1993 to over 2000 last year. This week, Turner retires and reflects on how his field has changed.
Decades ago, IVF lab protocols involved laparoscopy and a variety of solutions (media) in petri dishes in which sperm fertilized oocytes to form embryos. From sequential media to a single-step media, the process has evolved, says Turner, who is certified by the American Board of Bioanalysts as an Embryology Laboratory Director.
Ovation Fertility Austin pioneer recalls the early days of IVF
The year that Turner began practicing embryology, the physicians responsible for the birth of Louise Brown in 1978 reported a 6% IVF success rate in cycles that did not stimulate the ovaries with fertility medications.*
In his first laboratory role at UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Turner was tasked with establishing an IVF lab. “We knew microscopes as well as the culture media and the other necessary equipment to make an IVF lab successful, so we helped put this together at the medical school,” Turner recalls.
There, his team introduced GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer), positioning the program to transfer retrieved eggs and sperm directly into the fallopian tubes via laparoscopic surgery.
Nearly 30 years later, Turner’s Austin IVF lab team can identify the best quality embryos after 5-7 days of growth, at the blastocyst stage of development. They can also screen for aneuploidy and genetic defects, freeze the embryos, and then transfer the embryos in the following cycle. “We can thaw and transfer just one blast and still keep pregnancy rates very high. We can also lower the miscarriage rate and almost completely eliminate the risk of a multiple pregnancy,” he says.
Vitrification and other IVF lab game changers
In 2010, Ovation Fertility Austin IVF started performing vitrification, an ultra-rapid freezing technique. “This allowed us to achieve a 99% survival thaw rate, versus 77% in the early days,” says the experienced embryologist.
Vitrification, he says, has directly led to the ability to implement other IVF “game changers” such as elective single embryo transfer (eSET), preimplantation genetic screening (PGS), and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). “PGS/PGD and vitrification go hand in hand,” he says.
Research is also focusing on optimizing uterine stability so that embryos have the ideal environment in which to grow, as well as protocols to identify the best quality embryo for transfer.
“We are currently investigating the use of time lapse photography, a technique that has recently burst on the IVF horizon,” says Turner. Time-lapse photographic assessment of early cell division is analyzed by computer software to determine if the embryo meets certain growth rate criteria.
“Embryo selection used to be a beauty contest, but if we look at the cytoplasm data—and learn when the cells actually divided—we know if that particular embryo met all the criteria. Eventually, I hope we will be able to put all of these tools [PGS/PGD and time-lapse photography] together so that we can improve our ability to identify the best embryo for transfer.”
Ovation Fertility Austin mentor encourages the next generation of embryologists
Looking ahead, Turner plans to spend time with his wife and three daughters’ families and stay involved in the field that he devoted his life to for over three decades by mentoring or teaching. He outlines what he considers essentials for becoming a successful embryologist today.
- A degree in the sciences Turner earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master of Science in Zoology from the University of Tennessee.
- A mentor relationship Gary W. DeVane, M.D. invited Turner to join his Orlando practice where the young embryologist found a lifelong mentor in Jacques Cohen, Ph.D., who trained under Robert G. Edwards, 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine.
- Attention to detail and a passion for embryology Turner’s fastidiousness was instrumental to the ongoing success of Austin IVF. In efforts to advance the field of embryology, he helped form and lead state and national embryology societies, including the Florida Embryologists Association and the Society of Reproductive Biologists and Technologists. Turner helped design and initiate programs for 10 IVF centers, and he consulted with more than 50 IVF laboratories worldwide. His research contributions on sperm assessment, embryo development and cryopreservation can be found in multiple textbook chapters as well as prestigious journals such as Fertility and Sterility.
Since 2006, Ovation Fertility Austin IVF has operated from its current location. Dr. Tex VerMilyea, an internationally recognized embryology laboratory director and rising star in the field of embryology now assumes the responsibility for directing the successful program after leading his previous program in New Zealand to unprecedented success.
About Texas Fertility Center
Texas Fertility Center (TFC), one of the nation’s leading full-service infertility practices, provides advanced infertility and Reproductive Endocrinology services to patients
throughout Texas, the Southwestern United States and the Americas. Since 1980, TFC has been recognized nationally for outstanding pregnancy rates, cutting-edge laboratory procedures and innovative research programs. Contact the clinic at 512-451-0149 C-SECTIONSor visit www.txfertility.com.