Our study quantitatively followed the dynamics of blastocoel expansion over time. We found that the blastocoel of ICSI and TESE-ICSI embryos is overall smaller than the blastocoel of IVF embryos. In addition, the expansion rate of ICSI with ejaculated sperm embryos was lower than the expansion rate of both IVF and TESE-ICSI embryos. Interestingly, we found that a larger size of the blastocoel and faster expansion were not associated with embryo implantation, but they were associated with ongoing pregnancy.
The observed smaller size and lower expansion rate for embryos that did not result in an ongoing pregnancy might have a genetic cause. It is shown that euploid blastocysts expanded significantly faster than aneuploid blastocysts (25). Another study compared mitotic spindles in slow and fast developing blastocysts. They observed that slow developing blastocysts more frequently have abnormal spindles that could lead to cellular mitotic arrest and consequently reduced cell numbers (26). Moreover, in a model for mosaicism in which mouse chimeras were created by using a mixture of normal and chemically induced aneuploid cells, it was shown that aneuploid cells showed proliferation defects in the TE, whereas they were actively eliminated by apoptosis in the ICM (27). Thus, aneuploidy may result in fewer TE cells, negatively impacting blastocyst expansion on day 5. A positive correlation has been described between expansion rate and the number of TE cells in human frozen-thawed surplus blastocysts, where hatched blastocysts had a higher number of TE cells (28). On the other hand, research in mouse embryos has also shown an important role for the ICM in the proliferation of the TE, as the ICM produces the signaling factor FGF4, which regulates TE development (29–31). Emerging research from mouse blastoids, a blastocyst model generated from embryonic and trophoblast stem cells, further demonstrated that the reconstituted ICM functionally regulated the diameter of the blastocoel by producing specific signaling factors (32). Thus, blastocoel expansion could also be a readout of the developmental progression of the ICM.
The association between the dynamics of blastocoel size and expansion, and different fertilization methods can give more insight into the biological consequences of performing ICSI. Our findings of a smaller blastocoel of ICSI and TESE-ICSI embryos is in line with an earlier observation of a smaller diameter of frozen-thawed ICSI blastocysts at hatching commencement than IVF blastocysts (33). Also, a lower complete hatching rate was shown in ICSI embryos than in IVF embryos, suggesting that there was insufficient expansion in the ICSI group (33). This study observed a small slit in the zona pellucida (ZP) in some ICSI-derived blastocysts that resulted in the herniation of some TE cells. The difference in expansion rate could thus have a mechanical cause, as the introduction of the injection pipette through the ZP results in a small hole. This might result in a smaller maximum expansion size for ICSI and TESE-ICSI embryos. However, the expansion rate of TESE-ICSI embryos was faster than the expansion rate of ICSI embryos. For this finding, we do not have a clear explanation. We hypothesize that it could be related to oocyte quality. Fertilization rates are lower after TESE-ICSI and this might give rise to a selection of only good quality oocytes that can sustain fertilization by testicular spermatozoa. Cleavage stage morphokinetics and the time of blastulation were shown not to be affected by male factor infertility after controlling for female factors (34). These findings suggest that, at least until the start of blastulation, the embryo developmental dynamics are mainly controlled by the oocyte and factors impacting oocyte quality (34). This effect may thus continue after blastulation, giving rise to faster expansion in TESE-ICSI embryos.
The stage of blastocyst development is already an important parameter for embryo selection on day 5, known to be associated with clinical pregnancy and live birth (14, 16, 35–37). However, no quantitative measurements are used to distinguish between blastocysts of similar morphology. Our results indicate that the blastocoel expansion rate has a stronger association with ongoing pregnancy than the blastocoel surface measurements over time. Within the transferred embryo group, we observed ICSI embryos to be smaller than IVF embryos, but the expansion rate was not different. The expansion rate can thus be a valuable parameter in the embryo selection process, independent of fertilization method. In the case of two blastocysts with similar morphology, the blastocyst expansion rate could be used to differentiate between the two (Fig. 4). In addition, the dynamics of blastocyst expansion might improve the selection of embryos that lead not just to implantation, but to an ongoing pregnancy. In daily practice, the limiting factor is that these manual measurements are time-consuming. However, surface recognition can be automated and automatic blastocoel surface measurements might thus be easily incorporated in embryo selection algorithms.
A strength of our study is that we used dynamic measurements of the expanding blastocyst of a large cohort of blastocyst transfers with known pregnancy outcomes. Also, the use of linear mixed model analysis took clustering of embryos originating from the same couple into account, preventing a possible bias of a large number of embryos originating from one couple. Our results are independent of the timing of full blastocyst formation because we corrected for this in our model. However, we do acknowledge the limitation of the retrospective and observational nature of this study. All TLM studies are subject to selection bias because of the analysis of fresh embryo transfer with the treatment outcome. These embryos, and the transferred embryos in our study, are already chosen as the best embryos by morphological criteria, where the blastocyst expansion stage is an important selection criterion.