Over 2 decades ago, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) revolutionized the treatment of male infertility. The ICSI procedure involves injection of a single sperm into each egg at the time of IVF (in vitro fertlization). Before the development of ICSI, couples with sperm issues, what we call "male factor," had very low fertilization and pregnancy rates, even when undergoing IVF. Now a days, because of the use of ICSI, poor sperm quality is a very unusual reason for an IVF cycle to be unsuccessful or to blame for poor fertilization. Over concerns about potentially poor fertilization, many fertility centers have chosen to use ICSI routinely to ensure optimal fertilization even when the male partner's sperm is perfectly normal. At Princeton IVF, our philosophy has always been to allow fertilization to happen "naturally" in the dish when there is no history of sperm issues or poor fertilization. While ICSI had been shown to be quite safe, we feel that a more natural selection process makes more sense and research in the past has suggested that ICSI is only beneficial in male factor patients. A recent large-scale study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has borne this out. ICSI when used in IVF cycles used in couples without sperm issues had lower fertilization and lower implantation rates than non ICSI cycles.
One of the chief concerns couples have is the about the safety of the procedures that fertility specialists use to help them achieve pregnancy, such as IVF (In vitro fertilization). Most of us in the field know that serious complications to the mother-to-be can occur but are quite rare. A recent study with the lead author from Emory University looked through nationwide database of IVF clinics across the country over the past 12 years, and confirmed that while IVF does entail risks for women, those risks are quire small.
Could a cure for real cure for infertility be on the horizon? Today many causes for infertility can currently be successfully treated such fertility issues caused by damage to fallopian tubes, ovulation disorders, endometriosis and low sperm counts or motility. These treatments currently available to us include fertility drugs, insemination, surgery and IVF. However, there are still issues in assisting women have very few or no eggs left or men who produce no sperm at all. This is a particular problem for women since women produce all they eggs they will in a lifetime while still in their mother's womb, and by their mid 40s have hardly any normal eggs left. These couples can be successfully treated only with the use of donor eggs or sperm. While these donor procedures are often quite effective, the children who result from these pregnancies do not carry the DNA of one or both of the parents. This is a problem since most couples who seek out the help of a Reproductive Medicine specialist want their own genetic children. With our current state of reproductive science this may not be possible.
One potential way around this would be using stem cells in the lab using cloning technologies. A group of scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel and Cambridge in the UK have brought us a little closer to this cure, figuring out how to more efficiently get these stem cells to grow into cells that will eventually develop into eggs and sperm. Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature.
The researchers have yet to take the next step; producing eggs and sperm from these stem cells. While it may become technically feasible, besides the technical issues, there are ethical concerns, perhaps even greater than when IVF when first introduced to overcome before this proceeds. IVF was enormous breakthrough when it was developed, but it is still merely a replication of natural conception, albeit in a laboratory dish. If this next step is even possible, it could bring reproduction to entirely new level. These technologies may make it possible to have genetic children without ovaries, without testes and without age limits, shattering our concepts about parenthood, even more so than it is today. It is not clear if society is ready for this yet.
In recent years, endometrial scratching, irritating the endometrium (lining of the uterus) to help in making the womb more receptive for pregnancy has emerged as a new and unsual way to help couples get pregnant. Recently, a group from Turkey presented data at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine meeting suggesting that performing an endometrial biopsy prior to IVF can improve pregnancy rates in women undergoing IVF by about 20%. In fact over the years, seeming against common sense, there have been a number of studies suggesting that a biopsy and/or hysteroscopy may improve the chances for IVF success. At Princeton IVF, we have been using this technique for years, first in patients who failed cycles without any good explanation and then routinely in all our IVF patients. Although no one is quite sure why it helps, it is likely that the repair process from endometrial trauma helps to make the uterus more receptive to embryos.
In women who suffer from infertility, their difficulty in conceiving is sometimes a sign of underlying health issues. For instance, it will know that women who suffer from infertility have a higher rate of pregnancy complications, even if they conceived without treatment. One of the most common causes for infertility, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is often associated with underlying metabolic problems and women with PCOS are more likely to develop medical problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, what is less clear whether this is also true in men. A recently published study suggest that men with fertility issues and sperm abnormalities may be more likely to have other seemingly unrelated medical problems.
As we reported in our blog earlier this year, fertility specialists in Sweden transplanted uteri into women who were unable to carry a pregnancy to help them. They were presumably motivated by one of the remaining challenges in Reproductive Medicine, helping women who were born without a uterus, or have had their uterus removed or have severe scar tissue in the uterus making it difficult or impossible to carry a pregnancy. The only options for these couples until now has been to use a gestational carrier with IVF to carry the pregnancy for them, what most people think of as a “surrogate.” Picking up on research that began over a century ago, doctors in Sweden used modern surgical techniques and medications to enable transplantation of the uterus. There is now some good news on this front. One of these transplants in Sweden resulted in a healthy live birth. The pregnancy and birth were not without complications. The baby was born 9 weeks early and the mom developed pre-eclampsia, a serious condition in pregnancy also known "toxemia" whose symptoms include high blood pressure and swelling. The doctors are also unsure if the uterus will be usable for a second pregnancy. Still, this an exciting first in Reproductive Medicine.
There are plenty of reasons to quit smoking. The health effects of smoking are well known and well documented, not just on your fertility, but a whole number of health issues including heart disease and cancer. Now, there's yet another reason to quit smoking if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Cigarettes may actually affect a woman's male offspring's sperm quality. As reported in Human Reproduction, the male offspring of pregnant mice exposed to high levels of cigarette smoke had sperm with lower counts, lower motility and more abnormally shaped sperm (low morphology), and these male mice took longer longer to impregnate female mice who in turn gave birth to fewer mouse pups. So, what does this all mean? While we don't yet know if this is true in humans (or even 100 % sure it is true in animals), exposure to tobacco smoke could not only harm your fertility (among other things) but also could harm your unborn son's chances of fathering children. This is another good reason to quit.
In recent years, Vitamin D has become the all the rage in medical research. It seems everybody these days is deficient in Vitamin D and a whole range of medical conditions from cancer to osteoporosis to reproductive issues have been potentially linked to insufficient Vitamin D. A recent study, which was in agreement several other previous studies, showed that women doing IVF with higher Vitamin D levels actually had significantly higher pregnancy rates than those who did not. While it is not clear at this time whether Vitamin D deficiency actually causes infertility or even whether supplementation will help couples conceive, it does suggest that maintaining healthy Vitamin D levels may contribute to good reproductive health.
This sounds kind of odd. Why would fertility specialists use a drug intended to treat breast cancer patients to help couples conceive? To those in the field, the concept is nothing new. Clomiphene (Clomid) is a close relative of Tamoxifen, a drug used for years to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. These drugs which block the action of the female hormone estrogen, cause hormone fluctuations that stimulate eggs to grow. Over the past decade, doctors have begun to use another breast cancer drug called Femara or Letrozole to treat couples in with infertility. Like tamoxifen, letrozole is used to prevent recurrence in breast cancer patients, and like clomiphene, it can also be used to stimulate ovulation (release of an egg). Until now, clomid has been the gold standard to help make women ovulate since it is relatively inexpensive and safe. Recently, however, a large study was published suggesting that letrazole may actually be more effective than clomiphene and result in fewer multiple births. Over time, it is likely that letrazole may replace clomiphene as a first line fertility drug.
This is one of the most common questions patients ask their fertility doctors and/ or their OBGYNs. Fortunately the short answer is no and this is backed up by large research studies. While their purpose may be to prevent pregnancy, the contraceptive effect of the pill wears off rather quickly. In some women the return to normal cycles and fertility can take a number of months, but usually there is not much of a delay. In other women, such as those with ovulation disorders such as PCOS, coming off the pill may actually increase the chances for conception. If your cycles have not regulated themselves 6 months after stopping the pill or they are becoming less regular over time after then and you're trying to get pregnant, it's probably not the pill, and it's time to discuss this with your GYN or fertility specialist.
And why might this be important? Unless you are a Spanish farmer raising swine, or unless you live in Spain and are in the market for pork or ham, it should not matter. But is you work in the fertility field or are trying to get pregnant, it may be an issue. The concern over what is going on with Spanish pigs, is really about why the pigs were having trouble reproducing. It turns out that back in 2010, there was a marked drop in fertility in pig farms across difference regions of Spain. Investigators at first had trouble figuring our where there problem was. The one common thread in each of these farms was that all of the farms used plastic bags from the same manufacturer to collect semen for insemination. A researcher at the University of Zarazoga, Cristina Nerín, then analyzed the bags and found that an ingredient in the plastic bags was the cause of infertile Spanish pigs. The scary part is that this chemical (and similar compounds) are found in plastic products that are used to package foods and beverages we eat every day. The good news is that the pigs of Spain and happily producing lots of piglets again. However, there is likely more to come on this topic in reproductive medicine and potentially in other areas of medicine as well.
A recent study suggests that men who keeps their cellphones in their pants pockets, may have lower sperm motility. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK, found that men who kept cell phones in their pockets had lower sperm motility than those who did not, about an 8% reduction. Is this an issue? It remains to be seen whether this decrease really affects a couple's chances for pregnancy and truly causes infertility.
Think going through fertility treatment today is stressful ? Imagine in a world in which everyone suffers from infertility, everyone needs donor embryos in order to get pregnant and there are not nearly enough embryos to around. Lifetime network plans to release a trailer for a series called the Lottery with just that story line. In the show, mankind faces extinction as no one is able to conceive and no babies are born. The only hope is in a small batch of embryos, the fate of which, and of mankind's survival is left up to a lottery.
With some states choosing to legalize marijuana, we hear very little of cannabis' effects on health, and even less on its impact on reproductive health. We have know for years that pot smoking can cause chromosomal breakage, and so for those couples trying to get pregnant, many reproductive specialists encourage both partners to quit when attempting pregnancy. Now, some new data out of the UK shows men who use marijuana are considerably more likely to have abnormally shaped sperm, Interestingly, in the same study, alcohol and tobacco did not. Since even in normal men, it is normal to have some proportion of misshapen sperm, this finding in itself is not enough information to say that marijuana causes infertility. Still, why take the chance? This is just another good reason to quit if you are planning to start a family in the near future.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is one the most common hormone problems in women of reproductive age as well as one of the most common causes for female infertility. While infertility caused by PCOS is often amenable to treatment, women with PCOS often have more complicated pregnancies, including problems such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia. One of the common threads with these issues is their association with inflammation. It turns out there may now be a link explaining why PCOS patients have more complications. A recent study shows that markers of inflammation are higher in PCOS women and become even worse when these women get pregnant. It could be that inflammation is the common link between in PCOS and a number of pregnancy complications.
Apparently according to the NFL, it is. One of the players on the Indianapolis Colts was suspended after taking clomiphene, a fertility pill commonly used by Fertility Specialists, OBGYNs and Urologists to help women (and sometime men) coping with infertility. Even though he was using it to help his wife get pregnant, successfully I might add, the NFL considers Clomid a "performance enhancing drug." Most patients who have taken clomiphene, and put up with some its side effects would likely take issue with that assessment.
A recent study from the NIH suggests that couples who have high cholesterol levels may not just be at higher risk for heart disease, they may also have a harder time getting pregnant. Couples (who were not yet considered infertile) in which both partners or even just the female partner had high cholesterol levels on average took a longer time to conceive. These findings are not so surprising since ovulation disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) are among the most common causes for infertility, and many of these patients have underlying metabolic problems that place them at risk for heart disease and diabetes. So what does this mean? It does not mean couples trying to get pregnant should rush out and go on statins to lower their cholesterol. Cholesterol is the chemical from which sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone are made from, so these drugs could potentially be harmful to your fertility. However, healthy lifestyle changes such as moderate excercise and avoiding processed high carbohydrate foods may help both cholesterol and fertility.
Being that is National Infertility Awareness Month, this week seemed like an appropriate time to share this story. I recently attended a lecture given by one of pioneers in our field and one my personal mentors, Dr. Eli Adashi. The story he shared with the audience moved me and reminded us of our patients' suffering and why we do what we do. In the history books, when one looks at the breakthroughs in medical infertility treatment, the birth of the first IVF baby does and will stand out as one of the great milestones. The protagonists in the story that everyone knows are, Drs. Steptoe and Edwards, the brilliant gynecologist and scientist team, and of course, baby Louise Brown herself. But the popular narrative leaves out perhaps the most important character in this drama, Lesley Brown, the patient herself. Lesley was a reserved woman who never wanted attention but her delivery was one of the most famous events of the 20th century. She put up with repetitive surgeries and painful medical procedures knowing there was little chance they would work. When she did IVF with Drs. Steptoe and Edwards, she was basically (and knowingly) a human guinea pig. Nobody had any idea as to whether it could work, whether it was safe and if it did whether her child would turn out normal. On top of that she had to put up with moral outrage (and occasionally harassment) of those who opposed the very idea behind IVF. Without her bravery and perseverance, millions of couples would remain childless and millions of babies would never have had a chance at life. Lesley Brown passed away quietly in 2012 but the legacy she left has brought both hope and joy to millions.
It is quite common for both OBGYN and Fertility doctors to encourage their patients who have had multiple miscarriages take baby aspirin in order to reduce the risk of future pregnancy losses. The problem with this is that these recommendations were never really backed up by research to see if aspirin is really effective in preventing miscarriages. In order to determine if this common practice was effective, the NIH conducted a large trial to see if taking daily baby aspirin would reduce the risk of subsequent miscarriage in women with 1 or 2 prior miscarriages. Unfortunately, as reported in the journal Lancet, baby aspirin did not help and these women were no more likely to experience another pregnancy loss than those who took a placebo. The one bright spot in this study: women who took had a single loss early in pregnancy within the last year and took baby aspirin were more likely to actually become pregnant.
The mechanism that enables the joining together of eggs and sperm to join together (and form what ultimately results in a baby) has long been a mystery to reproductive science. Now in an article published in the journal Nature, British researchers have described receptor on the surface of egg cells that enable sperm to latch on and fertilize. This "Juno protein" may be one of the links that enables us to reproduce, and for women who lack this protein, a potential new cause for infertility.