A 41-year-old woman with a history of miscarriages and 13 failed cycles of IVF treatment has given birth to a baby through a pioneering egg-screening technique.
Oliver – who did not seem to be taking the news calmly, judging by pictures released yesterday – is the first human to have been genetically screened before conception. Fertility doctors examined the eggs to be used during IVF to find the most suitable ones – a procedure they claim can double the chances of conception. Specialists say that it is a fast and accurate method of detecting changes to the 23 pairs of chromosomes within the human egg that are implicated in miscarriages and birth defects.
Doctors had said that the woman's chance of having a baby was less than 7 per cent, even without taking into account her history of failed IVF attempts. The new chromosome test showed that only two of her eight eggs were normal. After being fertilised, one was implanted into her womb and she became pregnant with Oliver. He was born in July. His parents have decided that the family should remain anonymous.
"Chromosomal abnormality plays a major part in the failure to establish a pregnancy," said Professor Simon Fishel, managing director of the Care Fertility Group, which pioneered the technique. "Full chromosome analysis may double the chance of success in couples who have a poor chance of conceiving or a history of failed treatments and miscarriage and maximise the chance of pregnancy in all couples."
The professor explained that about half the eggs in younger women and up to 75 per cent in women over 39 have abnormal chromosomes. The procedure, which was developed in Britain, can be performed in less than 48 hours, meaning that the IVF embryos do not need to be frozen before implantation. It costs £1,950 and cannot be done on the NHS.
Professor Fishel said he believed it would one day be possible for the treatment to be incorporated into the NHS's IVF treatment programme. "At the moment it is very expensive to produce the DNA chips we require to carry out the procedure," he said. "But once those chips are mass-produced then we could be talking about a few hundred pounds, rather than nearly £2,000. In that case the treatment could be considered – but it will be a long time before we are in that position."
The world's first IVF baby was born in 1978. Professor Fishel said that improving the success of fertility treatment had been a personal quest. "All the team at Care have been waiting for this very special baby to be born," he said. "I have been involved in many exciting developments in reproductive medicine. Oliver's birth is an important landmark in shaping our understanding of why many women fail to become pregnant."
Professor Fishel said there was a fine line between maximising the number of pregnancies achieved by IVF treatment and minimising the number of multiple births, which are often considered undesirable because of potential complications during pregnancy.
"We need to be able to choose objectively which eggs to use. If there are 10, it is no use maximising the chances of success by using them all because, at the same time, we want to avoid potentially difficult multiple pregnancies," he said. "By making it possible to select the most suitable, we have made it possible to make that objective choice."
He added: "In the case of Oliver, only two of the eight eggs we had were chromosomally normal and we were able to make the right choice. What we want is the maximum rate of conception with the minimum rate of multiple pregnancy: one egg, one pregnancy."