Health issues, omnipresent chemicals, and Western lifestyle are pushing birth rates to historical lows. AI startups emerge to tackle the growing fertility problems.
Struggles with fertility are a delicate subject. When a couple can’t conceive, it can feel as if their bodies failed to do what they were designed for. Guilt, shame, pressure, the never-ending questions from family and friends…
The problem is here to stay and grows into concerning proportions. Having a healthy baby is a journey that often needs help from science. So isn’t it about time to destigmatize infertility?
In 2017, Shanna Swan from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai waved a red flag about the sperm counts of modern men. Her research proved that sperm levels in Western society have dropped by more than 50 percent over the past four decades. Considering that her study involved 45k healthy men, the results are more than alarming.
This February, Swan released a book called Count Down, where she suggests the cause. Her findings about chemicals all around us are very concerning. “The kinds of chemicals appear to act like our natural hormones, or they interfere with the action of our natural hormones,” Professor Swan said for Hack. Essentially, they fool our bodies that they are estrogens or decrease testosterone, thus leading to problematic reproduction.
While it’s impossible to avoid these endocrine disruptors altogether, Swan believes we can minimize them. It could be washing your produce or avoiding microwaving food in plastic containers. She also acknowledges further issues influencing both male and female fertility, many of those related to health and lifestyle.
End the stigma
Those who struggle with fertility can get tuck within an expensive and exhausting cycle of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and alternative methods to conceive. One of the people who normalize this pervasive problem is Chrissy Teigen, whose two children with John Legend were born through IVF. She also spoke out after their latest attempt to conceive through IVF ended in tragedy. Unfortunately, the couple lost their third child due to complications in her pregnancy.
Teigen’s openness has always been polarizing. It shows just how much stigma there still is about a topic that urgently needs to be addressed. Just scroll through the comments under the picture of her crying in the hospital bed. Many women thank her for sharing her pain because, indeed, you don’t see that every day. Others believe that she should have kept it a secret.
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AI and fertility
As our fertility declines, AI, technology, and science step in. While we have hope with IVF, it often fails due to embryo quality. Right now, determining which embryo would be the most viable is essentially guessing. “There are many decisions that are based on gut feeling and personal experience. Even if you go to two IVF centers, two experts can give you two different opinions on the same embryo,” said Yael Gold-Zamir, Founder & CEO of Embryonics, for BBC.
This Israeli startup made waves with its approach that employs artificial intelligence (AI). They want to minimize human error and bring data into the process to avoid women exhausting their finances, bodies, and mental health on unreliable IVF.
Embryonics employs geometric deep learning, leveraging data from videos, images, patient data, and environmental data. Their algorithm is called Ubar, and it was trained on more than 8000 time-lapse videos of developing embryos. Based on those, Ubar can predict implantation probability. The first results look promising: the algorithm had excellent results and bested expert embryologists involved in the research. Currently, Zamir believes that Ubar is capable of improving the overall success rate of IVF by approximately 10%.
Several other startups have recognized the need to solve infertility. Among others, Future Fertility developed the first AI image analysis tool to evaluate eggs non-invasively. IVFAustralia has developed Ivy, an AI system that taught itself to identify the embryo with the greatest likelihood of developing as far as a fetal heart.
The development of these solutions could be much more urgent than we think. Shanna Swan predicts that by 2045, the decline of fertility will be alarming. Half of all men would not have any viable sperm, while the rest would have close to none. Whether the calculations are correct remains to be seen. However, considering our lifestyle, technology might just be the savior of humanity.