Dr. Jones: We have so many choices in our lives now, but some things we don't have choices about and that's when is it time to have a baby and when is it too late? But there are some choices.
Today in the studio we're with Dr. Joe Letourneau, who is a reproductive endocrinologist at the Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine and director of our oncofertility program and also for fertility preservation.
Well, you've planned everything in your life just right and you kind of didn't have kids because you were looking to find the right person to have kids with or you were looking at your job, and now you're older and you find out that you don't have many eggs left. What are your choices then?
Dr. Letourneau: This is the circumstance in which having frozen eggs can be quite helpful. At that point, it would be possible to consider thawing some or all of those eggs to try to create embryos and use them for fertility treatment.
In the last 10 or 15 years, we have developed a new type of technology called vitrification. And with this process we use a safe sugar type of solution to dehydrate the egg as we freeze it. This takes the water out of it and prevents the ice crystal injury. When we then use the egg in the future, we warm it back up and we allow it to refill with water, and it's a very healthy egg. So the survival rate of eggs currently is very high. It's in the 80% to 90% range. Whereas in our own field with our best technology 20 years ago, it was probably only 1% or 2% survival rate.
Dr. Jones: That's been the biggest change in IVF. So if a woman then decides she wants to use her eggs, some of them are thawed, and then sperm are added and then the embryo grows in the labs. So they go through an IVF process once they're finally ready to make a baby?
Dr. Letourneau: That's correct. After five or six days of growth, we would put the embryo into the uterus the same way it would sort of roll out of the fallopian tube, but we actually place it through a natural opening in the cervix.
Dr. Jones: So if a woman is lucky and maybe she has 20 eggs, they'll go into the freezer. She might have more than one chance at IVF, maybe more than one chance at having more than one kid perhaps?
Dr. Letourneau: Absolutely.
Dr. Jones: And how successful is it? And that probably is a function of how many eggs you get and how old the patient is, but what's the ballpark?
Dr. Letourneau: You've intuited there that age and the number of eggs has a big impact. So one egg for any woman could make a baby. But it really comes down to a probability. So one egg in one's early 40s has a much lower chance of one egg in one's early 20s. And as such, it helps to have many eggs. So likely getting as many eggs as we can safely achieve is probably the best method to preserve fertility. But probably each egg has somewhere between a 5% to 10% chance of making a single baby.
Dr. Jones: So what happens for now a woman's 42 or 43 and she's tried a couple of times with her own eggs and IVF hasn't worked? What are her next options?
Dr. Letourneau: It's important to think of the frozen eggs as one method of helping one conceive, and it's not 100% success rate as we spoke about earlier. Not every egg makes a baby, but coupled with the idea that some people their circumstances in life may change where they're ready to try to conceive their first baby at 38 or 39, they may be able to do that.
It may be that the frozen eggs are most helpful for the second baby or some other aspect of their family building. So some people may conceive on their own, some people may require some fertility treatment, and some people may even consider fertility treatment to have that first baby if they've been trying to conceive at 42 using their eggs at that time for new IVF and then saving the eggs from age 34 for, you know, their second baby. So it's a pretty dynamic process, but in general, having the frozen eggs does involve sometimes revisiting kind of the IVF process in order to use the frozen eggs.
Dr. Jones: And then the option if for some reason none of those things are working, we have donor eggs from young women that can be an option for people who find that appealing or they're willing to think about that choice.
Dr. Letourneau: Absolutely. We've been using donor eggs for 30 years or so in our field, and it's a very normal thing to do and it's an excellent way to build a family. A common concern that patients have about the relatedness, you know, I won't be related and my partner will or I won't pass on my genes. The reality is that most of us humans have most of our genes that are exactly the same, just about and so there is certainly a uniqueness to us. Part of that comes in our genetic code and then part of it comes in the way we use our genetic code.
And what we've found in research in big studies of human populations and in other mammals is that the maternal environment during pregnancy impacts the way the baby and then even their babies and their grandchildren after that use their DNA. And so there is a big impact on genetics. There's a big biological relationship that's created between the mom who carries the pregnancy from the donated egg, and I think it's a really excellent way to build a family if that should be needed.
Dr. Jones: Well, I think that knowing that you have options, whether you can exercise those options or not, for women who are trying to think about making a family someday is important for us as providers and for women who have the questions it's good that we actually have those options here. Thank you for talking to us about it, Dr. Letourneau, and thanks for joining us on The Scope.
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