Stories in the media this week have been warning about the 'IVF timebomb', but what's the real truth?
Concern for the future health of IVF babies and about the overuse of ISCI, a fertility treatment that uses potentially poor quality sperm, has been heard at an American conference this week.
This has led to newspaper headlines warning of an IVF timebomb, claiming that children born by IVF may face future health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and infertility.
Certainly there is an increased risk of low birth weight with IVF babies but this may be due to the fact that multiple births are more common through IVF and often lead to low birth weight. Low birth weight is linked with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity in later life, expert Professor Carmen Sapienza highlighted.
“It makes sense for IVF children to watch out for hypertension, obesity and related diabetes and cancers as they reach their fifties,” Professor Sapienza said. “It will be interesting to monitor these children, long term.”
Other studies discussed at the conference looked at specific genetic changes in IVF children, compared with children conceived naturally.
Babies created through IVF spend the first three days after conception in a Petri dish and are exposed to more oxygen than they would be in the womb. It’s thought that this could alter the way genes are expressed in IVF embryos. When Dr Sapienza’s team analysed gene expression, they found differences in 6-10% of the genes studied.
However, there is some concern about one particular method of IVF called Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). This is where a single sperm is injected through the shell of the egg.
This process means that potentially abnormal sperm, which would normally be filtered out, are used to fertilise the egg. Experts fear that genetic defects, which would normally prevent conception, could affect the embryo and lead to a higher risk of birth defects or children inheriting their parent’s infertility.
The treatment was developed to treat male infertility but many clinics have started using it for other patients because of its success rate. In Europe two-thirds of fertility treatment are ISCI, whereas 10 years ago, it only accounted for a third. Professor Van Steirteghem, who co-invented the procedure, believes it is being used by fertility clinics too often.