Advances in IVF technology, 35 years on

Alison and Chris Birch spent their first Christmas together with daughter Bethany (4 months), who was born through IVF
Alison and Chris Birch spent their first Christmas together with daughter Bethany (4 months), who was born through IVF

The desire to have a baby is something many couples will experience in their lifetimes but, when it comes to the point of conceiving, turning hope into reality isn’t always straightforward.

The first IVF baby, Louise Joy Brown, was born 35 years ago this year; at a time when the technique would have been little heard of, largely unsuccessful and – quite possibly – a little distrusted.

More than three decades later, the processes used in IVF have continued to evolve, effectively allowing little miracles to happen in families everywhere.

Perhaps it is because of the increased age of so many first time mothers, or simply because of a better awareness of what fertility treatment can do, but the numbers of people seeking IVF treatment are increasing, according to Care Fertility in Northampton, which is a main port of call for NHS and private patients from Northamptonshire ... and sometimes further afield.

But as numbers have increased, so have success rates and new technologies.

Dr Rahnuma Kazem, medical director at Care Fertility, said: “Ten years ago I remember quoting a 35 per cent success rate for people under 35.

“Now, across the board, success rates are higher, but labs have changed. In all areas people are trying to get the best results.”

She continued: “Success rates really depend on average age. If someone is under 35 and two embryos are used, the success rate is 56.4 per cent. For those aged 35 to 37, the rate is 41 per cent and, for those aged 38 to 39, it is 39.5 per cent. It is 32.5 per cent for those aged 40 to 42.

“For those using donated eggs, the rate is 56.3 per cent.”

Success rates are expected to rise even further thanks to the addition of certain technologies which allow experts to analyse the development of embryos more closely than ever before.

One strategy is called Care maps, which involves cameras taking photos of each embryo every 15 minutes to create a history of its progress.

Dr Kazem explained: “We now have something called Care maps where we use time lapse imaging. We know what time an embryo will divide and, by looking at this, we can tell which embryos have the highest chance of succeeding.

“It is an incubator with time-lapse imaging and a camera is attached to the incubator. We can see at which time each embryo started dividing and how they will progress.

“We know that if an embryo divides in a particular time frame, it is more likely to implant. In the former incubators we would look at the embryos once or twice a day.”

She added: “There are so many little things that have come in.

“There is something called embryo glue, where there is a substance added which can help with implantation. These sorts of things are available but we don’t know how much of a difference that would make to the treatment cycle.”

A technique called Array CGH, introduced about three years ago, allows clinicians to analyse a cell for chromosomal abnormalities. This will pick up on the presence of Downs Syndrome but, in IVF, it is designed to detect problems which could make a pregnancy fail. Array CGH is not used for all patients due to the cost involved.

Dr Kazem said: “The general reason IVF doesn’t work is embryo abnormality. If you can pick the right embryos, you can increase the chance of them implanting. The reason we don’t do it for everyone is the expense. If someone has done two to three cycles and is getting closer to 40, these are individuals we will definitely consider.”

Whether or not faith is now increasing in IVF, or more couples are in need of its aid, Care’s workload is increasing.

Dr Kazem said: “We now do about 800 to 900 cycles of treatment in a year and are getting more and more referrals now.

“For the NHS, the numbers are static at about 200 cycles a year, but the rest of them are mainly private patients, particularly because of the technology we can offer and we have such a short waiting list.”

She added: “Every NHS patient has a choice of four clinics and they can choose which clinic they go to.

The majority of patients in Northamptonshire choose to come here as we are local.”

First Christmas with baby girl

Having tried to have a child naturally for five years, Alison and Chris Birch from Rushden may have thought they would never enjoy a Christmas with a new baby of their own.

But last year they decided to take the IVF route and, after one round of NHS treatment at Care Fertility, they found out they were expecting a baby. Their little girl, Bethany, is now four-and-a half-months-old.

Alison, who is 30, said: “I was given the go-ahead in May and I was seen by Care in September.

“It is a long process as they want to find out what is going on. You have to be assessed and it is a long process getting to the IVF stage. But, we started in September and were pregnant by November.

“My advice to others would be not to give up hope really.

“We wanted other things to work and this is the way it worked for us. We had been told to do our research. If we were stressed about it, it wouldn’t make it easier. It was hard but I knew we would have a child, whether through adoption or surrogacy.

“Throughout the whole pregnancy we took it one day at a time. If you do get pregnant you aren’t 100 per cent certain it is going to work. We were lucky and relieved.”