Four out of five women who were unable to conceive despite repeated IVF treatment have become pregnant after taking a drug that prevented the body's immune system attacking the embryo, a scientist revealed yesterday.

Four out of five women who were unable to conceive despite repeated IVF treatment have become pregnant after taking a drug that prevented the body's immune system attacking the embryo, a scientist revealed yesterday.

Professor Alan Beer, a US-based infertility specialist, has found that 70 per cent of women who have undergone three unsuccessful cycles of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) also have very active immune systems. They produce higher than normal levels of a chemical called TNF alpha, which is secreted by immune system cells that are known as natural killer cells.

This chemical is responsible for damage to tissues and joints in auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and Lupus.

To see if the same chemical was responsible for attacking embryos in women with fertility problems, Professor Beer recruited 100 women who had suffered repeated IVF failures and gave them drugs used to treat auto-immune diseases.

The results, which were presented to a meeting of the British Fertility Society and the Association of Clinical Embryologists in Nottingham yesterday, were described as an "astonishing success".

Among women under 35 years old, 78 per cent managed to fall pregnant after taking the drugs to reduce the levels of TNF in their bodies. There was a 58 per cent success rate among women who were aged 42 and above. Many thousands of women fail to become pregnant through IVF, or suffer recurrent miscarriages, despite being in good health and young enough to conceive.

Professor Beer's findings could now explain some of these failures and lead to new treatments that suppress the immune system when women are attempting to conceive. He said: "The breakthrough was to find what component of the immune system was doing the killing – and then reduce that component to normal levels."

British couples are among those who took part in trials run by Professor Beer, one of the world's leading reproductive scientists, at his base at the Chicago Medical School in Illinois.

Despite the high success rate, Professor Beer said the manufacturers of the drugs that were used were so far reluctant to get involved in fertility treatment because of fear of litigation if things went wrong.

"It seems to me a little unkind if they withhold a drug that may help infertile women. I think they have responsibility to help if the data shows that the drugs are beneficial," he said.

Dr Simon Thornton, one of the British specialists at the conference, said one-third of couples treated at his clinic had unexplained fertility problems. "At present, we use IVF as a treatment for many patients who have unexplained infertility but this may be a much more straightforward treatment to allow them to have a perfectly successful pregnancy," he said.

Dr Mohammed Taranissi, of London's Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre, said the results were "impressive". "It's something we have suspected for a long time. Now we have to see whether we can apply a drug which has been developed for another problem for infertility problems."

Professor Beer said mothers often found they could not have a second child, potentially because they developed an immune reaction during the first pregnancy and the natural killer cells prevented another. His own daughter Mel was an example. She had begged her father to treat her and was now 21 weeks pregnant, he said.

* An expert in prenatal surgery who treated Mandy Allwood's eight-baby pregnancy claims he was "grossly misunderstood" because he came from another society. Professor Kyprianos Nicolaides, a Greek Cypriot cleared of professional misconduct in 1998 over "provocative" remarks to a patient, told the Radio Times: "I was grossly misunderstood because I come from a different society. My behaviour acquired a dreadful inference when written down."

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