Pregnancies from frozen eggs may help couples trapped by Italian law

Five children have been born conceived from previously isolated and frozen egg cells, Italian scientists announced today (Wednesday 30 June 2004) at the 20th annual conference of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology. The method bears great promise for patients who live in countries where embryo cryopreservation (freezing) is prohibited, like Italy, or who object to embryo freezing for personal reasons, said Dr. Paolo Levi Setti from the Istituto Clinico Humanitas in Milan.

But, said Dr. Levi Setti, this technique would not replace embryo freezing in the future, and much more research into the freezing protocol and other aspects of the procedure was needed. “More children need to be born after the procedure before we can conclude that it is safe”, he said. “To date almost all the research has come from Italy, and it would be good to see other countries becoming involved.”

Between November 1999 and December 2003 the team isolated 2900 egg cells in 286 patients undergoing IVF or ICSI and preserved them. 145 transfers were performed in 120 patients after the eggs were thawed and sperm injected into the cytoplasm of the cell. 16 clinical pregnancies (a pregnancy sac seen in the uterus on ultrasound) were obtained. At the time the data were analysed, 4 patients had delivered 5 normal children.

“This study was specifically intended for young women without a partner who were about to undergo chemotherapy”, said Dr. Levi Setti. “But since March 2004 Italian law has not allowed us to freeze embryos and we are having to try to apply egg freezing to infertile patients more widely. Our aim is to try to limit the consequences of the new law on infertile couples. We hope that by studying egg freezing we may be able to help them avoid some of the worst effects of the uninformed prejudice of our politicians”.

Dr. Levi Setti’s team is now freezing eggs from all patients who undergo IVF or ICSI in the hope that they may be able to be used for pregnancies in the future. “We have not yet had time to know whether we can confirm and improve our early results”, he said “nor whether the babies will continue to develop normally, although to date this has been the case. The next major step will be to carry out a multi-centre trial to see if our results can be transferred from the experimental into clinical practice.”

The successful outcome of the early research is an important step towards making assisted reproduction more acceptable in countries with a strong religious tradition, said Dr. Levi Setti. “It is part of our mission to assist infertile couples as much as possible, especially in a country like Italy which is a political minefield when it comes to artificial reproduction techniques.”

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