Next generation fertility
22nd June 2018
In 1978, Louise Brown became the first baby to be born thanks to IVF, marking a medical milestone and coining the futuristic phrase ‘Test Tube Babies’. 40 years later and the advancements in fertility treatments are continuing rapidly. As technology has improved so have the chances of conceiving for millions of families worldwide, and the next generation of fertility treatments has been dominating the medical press this year.
Next generation fertility treatments
In this blog we set out some of the exciting developments in next generation fertility treatments – from VR to womb transplants. It’s fair to say that in the next decade we are going to see a big transformation in fertility treatments. If you’re interested in the latest science fiction on this topic, we recently reviewed the brilliant Angela Chadwick’s the XX. The “XX” tells the story of a couple who take part in a groundbreaking clinical trial that enables two women the chance to have a female baby. This is certainly something that could be on the horizon one day.
Virtual Reality Sessions
Whilst IVF remains one of the most common fertility treatments in the UK, the procedure is consistently being improved and updated. The latest research in this area has focused on how Virtual Reality sessions can decrease anxiety during IVF procedures and potentially increase the chance of successful pregnancies. The study, by Professor Fabienne Roelants, of Saint-Luc Hospital in Brussels, was presented to the Euroanaesthesia congress in Copenhagen this month.
The study took a sample of 100 women who were due to have IVF procedures under sedation. Some of the group were assigned a ‘distraction’ VR session (an underwater walk cut off from all ambient noise). The others were assigned a ‘hypnosis’ VR session (focused on slow breathing exercises). The hypothesis of the study was that the virtual reality sessions would reduce signs of anxiety and stress in the women ahead of their procedures. Overall the results were positive. Professor Roelants said of the experiment, ‘the preliminary results of this study show that VR sessions before sedation for fertility treatment significantly reduce women’s anxiety.’
Further extensive study is needed to see whether the revolutionary approach leads to a definitive improvement in IVF outcomes. However, it is a promising step towards a more holistic view of fertility treatment.
Human Eggs Grown For First Time
In a breakthrough in fertility treatment, human eggs have been grown in a laboratory for the first time. Whilst still in the very early stages of research, scientists at the University of Edinburgh have described the event as ‘very exciting’.
The research could offer hope to a wide variety of women. Including those who have gone through the menopause. It offers particular hope to young women who have received cancer treatment. Chemotherapy treatments risks affecting fertility. While women have the option to freeze their eggs ahead of treatment or to have ovarian tissue removed before treatment, and have it transplanted back in to mature once they are older, being able to make eggs in controlled conditions could be a much safer option.
Mr Stuart Lavery, a consultant gynaecologist at Hammersmith Hospital, told the BBC “this work represents a genuine step forward in our understanding.” He said “Although still in small numbers and requiring optimisation, this preliminary work offers hope for patients.”
There is still much research to be done in this area, including attempting to fertilise the eggs to assess their viability. But after decades of work this is no doubt a huge step forward and a milestone to be celebrated.
As of 2018, womb transplants are set to become available in Britain.
For the 6,000 women in the UK who have been born without a uterus or those who have lost their womb to diseases such as cancer, this advancement marks a major step forward. In 2015, approval was given for 10 womb transplants in the UK (at the time, from deceased donors). The procedure is extremely complex and comes with risks, but years of research means they are now able to use living donors, likely to be the mother or sister of the patient, which is a much safer option. The charity Womb Transplant UK has been intrinsic in the research and funding for the project and currently have enough money to pay for 3 transplants, which they hope will take place ‘by the end of 2018’. Around 750 women in the UK have already approached the team to enquire about transplantation.
Whilst this procedure will be a first in the UK, womb transplants have already taken place in 10 countries. This includes Sweden, Turkey, the US and Serbia. In 2017, a healthy baby was born in Texas thanks to the procedure, and 8 babies have been born in Sweden alone since they began offering transplants.
It is exciting to see that these technological advancements tackle a wide range of issues in relation to reproductive health, offering hope to millions of women.