The evolution of IVF treatment
As the world’s first baby born through IVF turned 40 this year, we look at how IVF treatment has evolved over time, and what is involved in the process today
When she was born in the summer of 1978, Louise Brown was referred to by the media, in a somewhat detached way, as a ‘test tube baby’, with her conception taking place in a petri dish. But the normality of IVF treatment in today’s society means both the treatment and attitudes towards the method have come a long way since the 1970s. A shining beacon of hope for those struggling to conceive, IVF treatment has helped transform the lives of many people who so desperately want a child.
With the conception of the first IVF babies, there was a feeling from many, even from within the science community, that the process involved too much interference: “IVF is much more acceptable and openly spoken about now,” says Professor Dr Geeta Nargund, lead consultant in reproductive medicine, St George’s Hospital NHS Trust and medical director of Wimbledon’s CREATE Fertility.
“Over eight million babies have now been born through the treatment. It is an amazing advancement that offers hope and a solution for the estimated one in seven couples facing fertility issues in the UK. IVF treatment and other advancements in fertility treatments have also opened the door for same sex couples and single women to have children, an offering that was not available to them previously,” she adds.
It’s not just attitudes that have come a long way since the late seventies, with medical advances in the field meaning the industry is constantly evolving. “It is amazing how non-invasive the process is now, compared to what it was in the past,” explains Dr Kamal Ojha, medical director of the Concept Fertility Clinic and consultant gynaecologist and honorary senior lecturer at St George’s Hospital NHS Trust.
Where women were once required to spend two or three weeks as inpatients for IVF treatment, they are now treated as day patients. “Egg retrieval involved a major operation and hospitalisation. Today it is an outpatient procedure and the patient will only be in the clinic for a few hours,” Dr Ojha explains. It is also now possible to freeze spare embryos to be stored for future use. In the past, embryos didn’t always translate, with many turning out to be chromosomally abnormal meaning that miscarriage rates and the likelihood of post-birth problems such as Down’s syndrome were high. Clinics are now able to assess the quality of embryo before transferring to the womb.
Also commonplace was the issue of multiple pregnancies. “The reality is that twin pregnancies are best avoided as they can harm the health of the mother and babies,” explains Dr Ojha. This once-common problem has been overcome with advances in single-embryo transfers.
“I would definitely recommend the treatment for other hopeful parents. My advice is to read a lot on the topic beforehand, and I would think about checking different clinics and finding the one that feels ideal for you.”
According to National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommendations, women aged under 40 should be offered three cycles of IVF treatment on the NHS if they’ve been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years, or if they’ve not been able to get pregnant after 12 cycles of artificial insemination.
Ultimately, individual NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) make the final call about who can receive NHS-funded IVF, so it’s seen by some as a bit of a postcode lottery, with factors like smoking or being overweight more important to some local CCGs and discounted by others. Be sure to contact your local CCG to find the policies of your area.
If you’re not eligible on the NHS for treatment, or decide you want to pay for IVF treatment, you can go privately or look for options abroad, which is what former Twickenham resident Stefania Agrioli, 53, did to get pregnant later in life with her two sons, Henri, now three, and Francis, one. Stefania opted for IVF treatment after results showed that her fertility had decreased with age. “Once you come to terms with the fact that you cannot conceive naturally anymore, which can be devastating, it’s a question of how much you really want to get pregnant,” explains Stef, who has experienced natural conception with her first two older children, as well as IVF treatment. “To compare the two experiences, IVF treatment is a clinical process, where you have to cope with a certain invasion of body privacy. But in the end, the ingredients are the same – they will still use your eggs and the sperm to create your baby.”
Stefania says: “I would definitely recommend the treatment for other hopeful parents. My advice is to read a lot on the topic beforehand, and I would think about checking different clinics and finding the one that feels ideal for you. In my case, after an exchange of emails and face to face appointments, I opted for the one that inspired more confidence.”
“My children are like any other children – annoying at times but also very sweet.
Most importantly, they are healthy.”
Dr Nargund also advises preparing the body appropriately by leading a healthy lifestyle beforehand and insists that support from family and friends is crucial. “IVF is a difficult journey – be sure to talk about your feelings and don’t let the emotions build up – constant advancements mean there is a variety of options available.”