New IVF embryo-screening process means less heartache for couples

Thanks to a new IVF screening procedure developed at Oxford University, baby Connor Levy was born to happy couple Marybeth Scheidts, 36, and David Levy, 41 of Philadelphia in May this year. Details of the procedure, which uses Next-Generation Sequencing to check the number of chromosomes in each prepared embryo, were presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) meeting in London on Monday.

Next-generation sequencing or NGS is a new way of screening embryos for abnormalities before they are selected, meaning a higher success rate for couples who undertake IVF. Only a third of all embryos result in successful pregnancy and this is often due to problems with DNA, particularly the number of chromosomes present. The new test which can be completed within 24 hours, is part of an international study in collaboration with Dagan Wells, a fertility specialist at Oxford University. It allowed the couple’s doctors to select an embryo with the correct number of chromosomes to transfer into the womb, enhancing the chance of success hugely. In fact, only three of the thirteen embryos prepared were discovered to be without chromosome abnormalities although they appeared healthy. Without the test, an embryo would have been selected by chance and the odds mean it is very likely it would have had the wrong number of chromosomes which can cause both a failure to implant in the womb; miscarriage; or result in a genetic disorder, such as Down’s Syndrome in the child. Instead, a healthy boy was born, reducing both heartache and costs for the couple involved.

Some clinics already offer a chromosome screening process but this can add thousands onto the cost of an already expensive course of treatment. It would have cost Connor’s mother, Ms Scheidts, $6,000 (£4,100) for this test in Pennsylvania. The new test has issued from the scientific advances in mapping the human genome and gives doctors vital genetic and biological information about the embryo at a lower price to the couple – two-thirds of the cost of the existing method.

Michael Glassner, one of the specialists who treated Connor’s parents at the Main Line fertility clinic in Pennsylvania said of the breakthrough: “It is hard to overstate how revolutionary this is,” “This increases pregnancy rates by 50% across the board and reduces miscarriages by a similar margin. It will be much less expensive. In five years, this will be state of the art and everyone who comes for IVF will have it.” Stuart Lavery, too, a consultant gynaecologist and director of IVF at Hammersmith Hospital, called it “amazing science”.

The Oxford team is now planning in-depth trials of the screening procedure to assess just how effective it is and how much it boosts pregnancy rates. They will also research which age groups the test benefits the most, as chromosome problems often increase with the age of the parents.

Although Connor Levy was the first baby to be born due to the assistance provided by this breakthrough method, there is already another baby due in New York in about a month’s time, also conceived through help from the screening. Hopefully many more will be born the same way in the future, making IVF a more successful, cost-effective solution to fertility problems and resulting in many happy families.

Sources include: BBC News, The Guardian

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