The technique involves putting the sperm and egg together in a small silicone capsule, which is then placed into the womb. The device, called AneVivo, is one centimetre long and one millimetre wide and contains hundreds of tiny holes that allow the fluids from the womb to surround the egg and sperm as would occur during a natural conception.
After 24 hours, the capsule is removed to allow doctors to select the healthiest embryo, which is then re-implanted back into the womb.
The technique was developed by the Swiss scientist Dr Mock Pascal and has already been used in various European clinics. It was approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in September and will be available at the Complete Fertility Centre, based at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. It will initially only be offered to private patients at an additional cost of £700, reports BBC News.
Professor Nick Macklon, the medical director at the Complete Fertility Centre, said the technique could provide a number of potential health benefits for babies born following fertility treatment.
'IVF has been around for a long time and is very safe – there are lots of healthy IVF babies. However, they tend to be born at a slightly lower weight and there is a suggestion that as they get older, they have slightly increased blood pressure,' he said.
'There's increasing evidence this is to do with the culture medium we use in the laboratory – so if we can keep them for as long as possible inside the uterus, not only do we expose them to all the goodies only mum can provide but we save them from being exposed to a synthetic environment at a very sensitive stage of early development.'
He also added that this new treatment 'is important psychologically as it involves parents-to-be directly with the fertilisation process and early embryo development'.
However, the HFEA has recognised that it is not yet fully known whether the AneVivo technique will actually be an improvement on the standard IVF approach in terms of efficacy and 'might add an unnecessary cost' to patients.
Minutes from its approvals committee state that because of the small sample size in clinical studies to date, it was not possible to make an objective assessment of its efficacy.
Geoffrey Trew, consultant in Reproductive Medicine and Surgery at IVF Hammersmith has also said that more data is needed. 'The lab part in traditional IVF is high tech but may give better results – hence the development of time-lapse incubators, which may also allow the selection more accurately of the single embryo that is best to put back,' he said.
'So – promising, if used correctly. But more data needed to see real success rates and how they compare to "traditional" lab work.'