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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 02:16 GMT


IVF advances on the way

A refined version of ICSI could bring more hope for childless couples

A welter of changes to fertility techniques could mean a big improvement in the rates for IVF success.

BBC Tomorrow's World explores the future of IVF
Currently 6,000 of the 600,000 babies born in the UK a year are the result of IVF - a technique developed in the early 1970s. But IVF has only a 15% success rate.

According to BBC One's Tomorrow's World, this could improve dramatically in the next decade.

One of the biggest and most controversial advances in IVF in recent years has been the introduction of a technique called ICSI - intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection.

Low sperm count

This works by injecting a single sperm directly into an egg.

Some people fear the technique could increase the risk of genetic defects that make the donor infertile being passed on to babies.

ICSI was introduced five years ago, but new advances are helping men with a very low sperm count to benefit from it.

These include operations to search for sperm which can be retrieved and injected into an egg.

Healthy pregnancies

Another advance being developed at St George's Hospital in London involves a 3D ultrasound device which helps to spot fertility problems before IVF begins.

For example, it can test whether there are any blockages in a woman's fallopian tubes that could harm her chances of having a healthy pregnancy.

Other doctors at the hospital are pioneering a technique that could mean an end to hormone treatments and the painful retrieval of eggs from infertile women.

[ image: A 3D ultrasound scan could help before a woman gets pregnant]
A 3D ultrasound scan could help before a woman gets pregnant
The technique involves collecting thousands of immature eggs from the ovary and developing them in the laboratory.

It works by removing a bit of the skin of the ovary which masks the place where immature eggs develop.

It takes five months to grow there properly and lots of nourishment.

The eggs can be frozen so that they can be used whenever the woman wants.

Again, the technique is controversial because it means a woman could store the eggs and use them at any age.

It is likely to be available in the next 10 years, say doctors at the hospital.

Controversial method

Dr Ian Findlay is also developing a test that can check for 10 genetic abnormalities in one go before a fertilised egg is placed in the womb.

He said: "This could lead to a dramatic reduction in miscarriages as the vast majority of miscarriages are due to abnormalities."

He extracts a single cell and analyses its DNA for chromosomal abnormalities.

Until now, tests have not been fast enough to allow doctors to test for more than one abnormality at a time.

However, the technique is also controversial because of accusations linking genetic testing with eugenics.

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