Frontiers of Fertility

Better IVF. Cutting-edge ways to size up embryos. For couples struggling to conceive, the options are expanding—and the outlook is improving

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A baby in utero. New techniques can improve the odds of conception.

Making babies ought to be the easiest thing you’ll ever do—indeed, it ought to be a hard thing not to do. The evolutionary game is rigged so that it’s fun, the kind of fun you want to have even when offspring aren’t on your mind. Our body cycles make parenthood a constant possibility: women are ready to conceive every month, and men are pretty much ready to go any second. And the product of all that happy activity—a chubby, cuddly, cooing baby—is something we’re hardwired to find irresistible.

But things, of course, aren’t always so simple. The human reproductive system may be a prolific thing, but it’s also a very fragile thing, and there is a lot that can go wrong with it. In the U.S. alone, more than 7 million women have received treatment for infertility, spending more than an estimated $5 billion per year. For the past 10 years, the average billed cost for a single in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycle is $12,400—something infertile couples must pony up on their own since most insurance companies don’t cover infertility treatments—and just one cycle is usually not enough. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 42% of assisted-reproduction cycles lead to a live birth when the woman is younger than 35. The figure drops to 22% by age 40, 12% by 42 and just 5% by 44. Outside the U.S., the odds are no better, and the number of people who need help is far greater: an estimated 48.5 million couples worldwide are unable to conceive after five years of trying, according to figures released last year by the World Health Organization.

Given the powerful, primal hold baby-making has on us, the inability to perform so straightforward a genetic job can be deeply painful. “My husband and I would look around, and everyone we knew was having kids,” says Cindy Flynn, 35, an IT worker at a Sacramento nonprofit. “We struggled so hard to get pregnant. Building a family should not be so difficult.”

For now, it still is, but the outlook is getting decidedly brighter. Scientists are steadily refining and improving assisted-reproduction techniques. They’re harvesting better eggs, using fewer drugs to do it and selecting more vigorous sperm that have a better chance of producing a baby. They’re monitoring embryos while they’re still in the lab in ways that were impossible before. Perhaps most tantalizing, they are working to engineer human stem cells so that eggs and sperm can be produced in the lab using raw cellular material taken from the parents. This would lead to a baby that was entirely, genetically theirs, the product of an ordinary union of egg and sperm—nothing short of a last-ditch miracle for people who, without this help, might have been unable to produce any healthy egg or sperm at all.

“Twenty years ago I would often tell a patient, ‘I am sorry. There is nothing we can do,’” says Dr. Craig Niederberger, head of the department of urology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. “Fifteen years ago I would have been saying, ‘There is something I can do, but it’s very experimental.’ Today I can often say, ‘There is at least a 2-out-of-3 chance you are going to have a baby out of this process.’ It is becoming the most exciting field, with the most gratifying outcomes you can imagine.”

Boosting the Odds
Improving the outlook for fertility patients starts with improving the art of IVF, which is not just expensive and less than reliable but a true physical grind. Women must first endure a month’s worth of hormonal dosings, including two or three shots a day in the final stretch, all of which can lead to headaches, restlessness, irritability and hot flushing. The dosing pushes the ovaries to hyperovulate, producing up to a dozen ova at once, which are retrieved via laparoscope through an incision in the pelvis. Even after all that, there’s no guarantee the eggs will be viable; many immature ones that the ovaries would never have released on their own are shoved out prematurely by the drugs.

“Every time a patient goes through conventional IVF, the number of eggs designated as waste is about 90%,” says Dr. John Zhang, founder and director of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City.

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