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"Embryo in Silico: Time-lapse Embryo Imaging and the Datafication of Reproduction" Lucy Van De Wiel (University of Cambridge)

Egenis seminar series

An Egenis, the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences seminar
Date13 November 2017
Time15:30 to 17:00
PlaceByrne House

Egenis seminar series. Recent years have seen the emergence of in silico reproduction alongside the familiar in vitro reproduction (eg. IVF), as increasingly large and automatically-generated data sets have come to play an instrumental role in the technological reproduction of human life. This datafication of reproduction is evident at all stages of the reproductive process, whether in fertility apps for timing conception, genetic sequencing for predictive fertility testing, or time-lapse embryo imaging for selecting embryos. In this talk, I will zoom in on the latter case of time-lapse embryo imaging, a new data-intensive method of embryo selection that integrates reproductive and data technologies to decide which embryos will be implanted in the womb in IVF cycles. The presentation will analyse the new sets of images and data flows that capture the embryo in silico and discuss how patients and professionals increasingly make reproductive decisions in conjunction with digital technologies.

Since its 2013 introduction, time-lapse embryo imaging has been promoted as an alternative, and superior, form of embryo selection in IVF and is currently offered in the majority of UK fertility clinics. Whereas conventional selection relies on once-daily assessment of embryos under the microscope, time-lapse systems photograph incubated embryos every 5-20 minutes to create a video of embryonic development. Both the timing and the visual appearance of the embryonic cell divisions is quantified and matched against data gathered from previous embryo populations to predict the embryos’ future viability. The resultant videos are both a means for patient-clinician communication—including live streaming options from the incubator to the intended parents’ iPhone—and a tool for embryologists’ decision-making. By situating this technology in the institutional context of consolidating fertility, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, I address how time-lapse embryo imaging brings together self- and automated tracking, data infrastructures and social media in contemporary practices of technologically-assisted reproduction. In doing so, I argue that this datafied method of embryo selection may not just result in more or less “IVF success,” but also affects the conceptualisation, representation and commercialisation of the beginnings of human life.


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