Assisted reproduction increases congenital defect risk

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Embryo sorting in the lab. Image: © Rick Friedman/Corbis

In new research presented today at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Genetics in Sweden, French geneticist Dr. Géraldine Viot of Maternité Port Royal hospital in Paris, highlights the elevated risk for congenital defects for children born using assisted reproductive technologies (ART), and stresses the need for physicians to inform would-be parents of this increased risk.

Viot and colleagues surveyed roughly one third of all medical centers approved for ART in France, examining birth records from 2003 to 2007 for a total of more than 15,000 children. While, as the AFP reports, roughly 2 to 3% of the general population is born with malformations, according to this large scale study, Viot found that 4.24% of children brought into the world with the help of ART had congenital defects.

Previous research has suggested that as many as 11% of children born using ART may have congenital defects, according to the researchers, but, as the largest such study yet to examine this issue, Viot and colleagues are confident that their findings represent a more accurate depiction of the risk associated with ART.

Specifically, the researchers found a high rate of major malformations of the uro-genital tract and heart among children born using ART. Viot and colleagues also noted that the prevalence of Beckwith Wiedemann syndrome, a condition often characterized by physical “overgrowth” that is associated with an increased risk for several types of tumors, was six times higher among children born using ART than among the general population. The prevalence of retinoblastoma, a type of cancer of the eye that mostly affects young children, was 4.5 times higher in the study cohort than among the general population. Previous research has also suggested that children born using ART may be at elevated risk for diabetes and obesity.

Viot and colleagues suggest that there are many aspects of ART — from the hormones used to stimulate egg production to cryopreservation — as well as infertility itself that could be contributing to this increased risk, and that gaining a better understanding of potential causes is critical. Worldwide, it’s estimated that more than 3 million children have been born using ART. As Viot said in a statement about the findings:

“We estimate that in France some 200,000 children have been born after ART and therefore a malformation rate of this magnitude is a public health issue. It is important that all doctors and also politicians are informed about this. We also need to follow up all children born after ART and to put much more effort into trying to understand which of the procedures involved is implicated in this problem.”

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