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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most common questions patients ask us when they are about to start fertility drugs, is are they are safe? This question comes up whether they are going to start pills (Clomid, Femara) or injectable fertility drugs (Follistim, Gonal-F, Bravelle, Menopur). Unfortunately, the answers are not always so clear cut as we would like. One of the major concerns women have is about cancer, and the cancer which more women seem to fear than any other is breast cancer. In the past there have been questions about whether fertility drugs increase the risk of breast cancer. A recent study may help to reassure anxious couples. The researchers followed fertility patients from multiple institutions and showed that women treated with fertility drugs, both oral and injectables had the same rates of breast cancer as those who were not. The only exception was women with who took clomid for over year, who did have a slightly higher rate of breast cancer, another good reason to be proactive and see a fertility specialist early on.
Most fertility specialists, obgyns and midwives (and probably even your mother-in-law), know that stress can cause infertility. We see this in practice all the time, and numerous studies have shown that stress reduction techniques can help couples with infertility. Still, we do not quite understand the connection even though we know it exists. A recently published study from Ohio State looked at women trying to conceive and the levels of an enzyme called alpha amylase in their saliva. Alpha amylase is a considered a marker for stress, and the researchers found that women with higher levels had lower monthly pregnancy rates. Is this the missing link? Probably not, but it may be a first step in finding out how the mind affects fertility.
There has been a lot of chatter about effects of BPA in the news, an additive in plastics bottles and their effects on reproduction. The NIH decided to look into plastics additives effects on female and male fertility, and they found something interesting. Men who were exposed to pthalates, additives used to softer plastics such as vinyl took longer for their partners to conceive than those who did not; 20% longer. Surprisingly, BPA exposure in either partner and phthalate exposure in women did not affect fertility. While this does not prove that these chemicals cause infertility in men, it is another piece in the unsolved puzzle about how that environment may be affecting our reproductive health.
One Australian Fertility Specialist says yes, the classroom is the perfect place to learn about this, as reported on Yahoo News 7. Surveys continually show that the public, both women and men understand very little about their own fertility, and this is perpetuated in the media by stories of miracle late life pregnancies. Many women understand very little about how their own reproductive systems work, and even less about the true effect of age and lifestyle choices on their ability to have a family. Most of us reproductive specialists see patients all the time whose infertility could have been prevented. This doctor in Adelaide sees education as a sort of preventative medicine for infertility and is advocating making fertility education a part of the school curriculum in his country, along side with contraception. Will it work? And could it happen here in the US?
It has been known for some time that couples suffering from infertility, including those who get pregnant using assisted reproductive techniques such as IVF, are more likely to have complicated pregnancies.: more high blood pressure, diabetes, miscarriages, preterm births and likely birth defects as well. This is true even with singleton pregnancies. What is not so clear is why this is so. Is it the patient population? Women who have infertility tend to be older and have more medical and metabolic problems. Is it the fertility medications such as clomid and injectables? Is it something in the process of IVF or IUI that causes problems? Researchers at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles have received a large grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development to help study the molecular events the underlie an early pregnancy after IVF. They will be looking at both genetics (the DNA in the chromosomes) and epigenetics (changes in gene expression that occur outside the chromosomes) to try to discover an explanation for these problems