“I realized that the human infertility area, specifically the area of embryo culture, which was something I was working a lot in with animals, was really an area in medicine that was lagging way behind compared to what we had done with other specialties,” Wiemer said thinking back to his start in the 1980s. “I thought that this would really be a wonderful opportunity to do some work and really make an impact and a positive impression or leave a positive footprint.”
For Poma Fertility Laboratory Director Dr. Klaus Wiemer, PhD, moving from animal reproduction science to human reproduction and infertility just made sense.
Dr. Klaus Wiemer received his master’s degree in reproductive physiology with an emphasis in male physiology from New Mexico State University in 1985. Afterwards, in 1986, Wiemer’s interest in the growing field on human IVF took him to Atlanta where he began working in research with Dr. Jacques Cohen, a man Wiemer considers both pioneer and mentor.
“He invited me into his lab and he showed me what was going on and he said ‘Okay make this embryo culture better.” He cut me loose in the lab. Because I never worked in human IVF at this point, I had no preconceived notions; I was willing to try all kinds of things to see if they would be effective,” Wiemer said. “I didn’t know what was reasonable or unreasonable or a crazy idea or a good idea. I spent four months working in the lab in 1986 and realized that working in human IVF was incredibly satisfying and that there was so much good stuff that could be done in this field.”
Wiemer then began to see his work differently when he realized that it wasn’t just the science that was satisfying, it was helping people who were desperate to have a family but could not on their own.
“I was at the right place at the right time where I could make some really great impacts on people’s lives. Working in this lab was my first exposure to people who were working so hard to have a child. That added a level of validity to the science unlike I have ever known before. I felt like this was truly something that could let me work for a greater good of helping people. And yet at the same time I was getting into this field early enough that it would really allow me to get a chance to make some major contributions in people’s lives,” he said.
Subsequently in 1989, Wiemer received his PhD in reproductive physiology with an emphasis in embryology from Louisiana State University (LSU).
During his studies at LSU, Wiemer developed many new culture methods, one of which mimics the uterine/fallopian tube environment and allows embryos to be placed on a layer of cells originally found in the uterus or fallopian tubes. In 1988, he was awarded the overall grand prize by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine when studies using this co-culture system in assisted reproduction with human IVF showed increased pregnancy rates. Dr. Wiemer was also one of the first embryologists in the U.S. to achieve pregnancies with human blastocysts.
“I do wish that people had a better understanding of the fertility laboratory. It is a very encompassing and comprehensive procedure that’s involved in making high quality embryos with high chances of success on a consistent basis. The human embryology laboratory is probably the least standardized aspect of the whole area of infertility and reproductive endocrinology,” Wiemer said. “An IVF lab is a product of somebody’s experience, not necessarily a product of someone’s formal training. That’s one of the reasons we have such great success rates.”
Having successfully directed several IVF programs in the United States, Wiemer went on to oversee several IVF labs all of which consistently produced some of the highest pregnancy rates in the country, including delivery rates of 55% and implantation rates of 22%.
“I think the reason that the patients who undergo infertility treatment at Poma Fertility are going to get such great care is that the people who have to make the decisions on the spot are going to be people like Mike (Dr. Opsahl) and myself. You’re going to have an extensive amount of experience there. Decisions aren’t going to be made by a junior embryologist who may not fully understand all the specifics of reproductive physiology; memorizing some lab protocols is not enough. You’re actually going to get an onsite lab director who is in the lab everyday overseeing everything and looking at all the embryos to ensure that the whole process is going as smooth as possible,” Wiemer adds. “I think we’re probably one of the only labs in Seattle that has an onsite PhD laboratory director all the time. You just don’t take biology major and turn them into an embryologist without a lot of training.”
In addition to his responsibilities as laboratory director, Dr. Wiemer conducts research in a variety of areas, including the developmental potential of human embryos through variations in human embryo culture media, exploration of the relationship between embryo morphology and pregnancy rates, and the study of follicular stimulation and its effects on initial follicular dynamics and oocyte and embryo quality.
“I have been involved in probably over ten thousand procedures and I still become super excited when I see beautiful looking embryos and we have high outcomes,” Wiemer said, adding that, “It is the most awesome feeling when I see patients bring their baby to the lab and they had a beautiful, healthy baby. I look at this picture of this embryo and then I see this baby that has grown from this embryo. There’s nothing cooler than that!”
Dr Wiemer has published over 75 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics in the area of clinical embryology. He has received numerous awards for his research, including the Overall Grand Prize awarded by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Dr. Wiemer was also awarded the LIFE Award for Laboratory Innovations in Fertility and Embryology in 1997. Dr. Wiemer is a frequent speaker at professional meetings, both across the U.S. and internationally. He received the LIFE Award for Laboratory Innovations in Fertility and Embryology.
His main interests are in embryo culture systems, improving laboratory outcomes and studying the effects of follicular stimulations on subsequent oocyte and embryo quality. He is currently conducting research on developing an embryo morphology grading system that can be used to predict rate and quality of blastocyst development. Other projects include various aspects of oocyte as well as blastocyst vitrification systems. He is also a reviewer for several well known scientific journals such as RBM Online and Zygote.
In His Own Words:
“As a consultant for the past twenty years, I have worked a lot to make things better for other people, that’s what I do, but what I’ve learned though all this is you can only teach to a certain point. If there’s one thing that people don’t understand it’s the physiology of reproduction is not simply a process of memorizing some protocols. The physiology of reproduction is understanding all the innate things that are required for embryos to grow. You just don’t take a biology major and turn them into an embryologist without a lot of training. That’s one of the biggest things I see as a consultant is that people can have pretty good outcomes in the laboratory, but if something goes wrong, trying to figure out why it went wrong is hard because they don’t necessarily understand everything, they’ve just memorized a protocol. I think we’re probably one of the only labs in Seattle that has an onsite PhD laboratory director all the time. We didn’t want to be another practice where the laboratory director runs a lot of different labs and is rarely around and the technicians do everything. I think it’s an injustice, I think what it does is it dumbs down embryology to a certain point. You’re just following a recipe and you’re not making a cake; you’re making embryos.”
“I got into this whole idea of doing fertility work with people because of my major professor when I was working on my PhD. He told me to write a term paper about human IVF and my reaction was, ‘What?!! You want me to write a term paper about human IVF? That’s crazy, I don’t want to work in human IVF!’
The beautiful thing about having a mentor such as my professor, Dr. Godke, was he recognized that students were academically putting themselves in a corner or a box. In a PhD program, you should always be standing on the banks of a frontier so that your future is always uncluttered and your prospects are as broad as the horizon. A lot of people like me tend to artificially narrow down the things that you should be looking at for your life or career or what makes you happy or satisfied.”
“I would love for there to be more research money available so that we could do great research in the areas of human embryology that was funded by several funding sources so that’s it not privately owned technology, that would be great. Then you could get money from the National Institutes of Health and do more collegiate studies and you could get real data with big statistical numbers; that would be awesome. Right now, all the research is privately funded and that has bred a level of competitiveness in terms of developing technology. It’s an unfortunate byproduct when research and industry come from private sources and not from federal funding.”
“It’s not so much about me because I feel like I’m part of the team and I might be to a certain extent the face of the laboratory, but let me put it to you like this, the follicular stimulation and the work that the nurses or even Dr. Opsahl does do not always vary that much between clinics. But the procedures and all the background work and everything that a laboratory does to ensure our quality embryos varies from laboratory-to-laboratory. I would say the laboratory component of the IVF clinic is the least standardized. We have close rules that we follow to ensure integrity. But in terms of one lab making better embryos than the other, it’s because there’s nothing standardized, it’s all about the lab directors experiences.”
“I love to be outside and go to the mountains and go skiing or fly fishing. Going to the gym is really important to me as well. I think discipline in the laboratory starts with discipline with you. I try to lead a really healthy lifestyle and be disciplined about taking care of myself because that disciplined approach is an extension of how you approach your work. I think that people that do really well are highly organized and find a healthy balance between all that.
What I really love the most is skiing in the back country in the Pacific Northwest. I absolutely love to have my skis on and travel in the back country on a trail where there’s nothing there. When you’re in all these old growth forests it is a very humbling experience because you realize you’re such a small part of a really, really large mechanism. You’re just a tiny cog in a wheel. What it does is it provides you a level of humility that you don’t get when you’re inside all the time or in a highly controlled environment.”
“When we had our first pregnancy from frozen eggs several years ago it was a huge thing for me because it meant that women now were going to have all of the same freedoms as men do as far as preserving fertility because you have cancer or some kind of life altering treatment or even just to preserve fertility because they just haven’t met the right guy yet. It provides options for preserving their fertility for social reasons or even for life altering treatments. The other advancement that was great was when we were able to develop these methods to store embryos through vitrification, which is an ultra rapid way of freezing embryos. What I thought was so powerful about that was by being able to do this we were going to be able to reduce the real need to transfer lots of embryos in patients and increase the likelihood that patients were able to transfer a single embryos and then freeze the rest and the chances that the embryos that were frozen have a really high rate of survival.”
“That I have a cluttered desk! (Wiemer laughs). I’m really organized with things professionally but my desk becomes cluttered so I kind of can appear to be disorganized. There’s a system to it all.”