4 Ways Researchers Are Pushing The Boundaries Of Making Babies

Reproductive science is moving at a pace that few scientists could have predicted.
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Infertility treatment is more common than ever, thanks to technology.

More than 70,000 babies were born through in-vitro fertilization in 2014, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. That’s an increase of nearly 10,000 babies, compared with five years earlier.

Men and women are increasingly likely to seek medical help for reasons that include reduced stigma and more employers offering coverage for IVF. But one big reason for the trend is clear: Fertility doctors are getting better at making babies.

“Science is moving at a pace that’s very different than any of us could have ever imagined,” said Dr. Eli Adashi, a Brown University professor of reproductive medical science who specializes in ovarian biology.

Researchers have fine-tuned the best ways to stimulate a woman’s ovaries, grow embryos in the lab and pick the best ones to transfer to her uterus. Improved success rates have made IVF ― once considered an experimental procedure ― the gold standard of fertility treatment.

Here are some of the most inspiring breakthroughs that promise to rock fertility treatment further over the next decade:

1. Babies Made From Three People

For the estimated 12,000 women in the U.S. who risk passing down devastating mitochondrial diseases, including neurological disorders, and heart and kidney problems, a new procedure can be the difference in deciding to have children or not.

Scientists have found a way to remove the DNA nucleus from an egg with bad mitochondria (the energy-generating part of our cells), and place it into a donor’s healthy egg, from which the nucleus has been removed. The egg is then fertilized in the lab with sperm from a third person.

”It’s a huge breakthrough because we’re able to separate out the part of the egg that’s causing the problems,” said Susan Solomon, CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

The controversial procedure has already been approved in the United Kingdom, and it’s under review at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Supporters say it doesn’t really mix the genes of two women, since there’s not much DNA contained in mitochondria. In the future, it might be possible to use the technology to help rehabilitate less robust eggs from older women or women who prematurely went through menopause.

2. Fewer Twins From Better Embryo Freezing

For the last decade, the buzz about freezing eggs has been focused on women stashing away eggs to prolong fertility. But about five years ago, fertility doctors adopted a flash-freezing technology called vitrification to preserve embryos of women undergoing IVF.

It’s trickier to freeze five-day-old blastocyst embryos of about 80 to 100 cells than it is to freeze a single-cell egg. But the vitrified embryos have a better chance of surviving the warming process and resulting in a pregnancy than embryos frozen the old way.

The big payoff: Fertility doctors can convince patients who want twins to aim for a single pregnancy, and to save their remaining frozen embryos to try for a sibling later.

“By transferring a single embryo at a time, we can achieve safer pregnancies and healthier moms and babies,” said Dr. Alan Penzias, fertility doctor at Boston IVF and professor at Harvard Medical School.

3. Cheaper Genetic Testing

Couples worried they could pass on genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, to their offspring have long agonized whether to add thousands more to their IVF bill to have an embryo biopsied and tested for defects.

New technology known as next-generation sequencing allows scientists to study an embryo’s DNA with better accuracy, and to identify a much longer list of potential disorders. And, instead of studying a handful of embryos at a time, technicians can put a barcode on each embryo and test 200 at once.

“It can bring down the cost from thousands of dollars to hundreds,” said Penzias. “If you had told me in medical school that someday we could see an IVF couple, test their embryos and routinely help them avoid passing on a lethal disease, I would have never believed it.”

4. Making Eggs And Sperm From Skin Cells

For years, we’ve heard about “potential” applications of stem-cell science.

The future is finally getting close. The tantalizing idea of creating eggs from skin cells that have been programmed into embryonic-like stem cells was realized in mice by Japanese scientists a couple years ago. And here’s the kicker: Those mice gave birth to pups that also reproduced. The ability to make artificial eggs and sperm would be a “revolution” for reproductive science, said Adashi.

“It would eliminate IVF as we know it,” Adashi said. “You wouldn’t need to stimulate ovaries or retrieve eggs. You’d simply donate a cheek swab. It’s still a long way off, but people are working on it.”

In the meantime, doctors agree that the next revolution should focus on making fertility medicine accessible to more patients. Insurance plans are still not required to cover fertility treatment in most states.

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