Date Published: 9 August 2007

Future developments could bring major changes to fertility treatment in 3 years

An international panel of scientists and fertility experts have predicted major developments in the way IVF is carried out within 3 years, in a report to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), launched today. This first report, Scientific Horizon Scanning at the HFEA, predicts the use of gene chip technology to boost IVF success rates and cut costs, while tissue technology could be used to provide a new source of eggs for fertility treatment and research.

The report combines the work of the HFEA's policy team, its Scientific and Clinical Advisory Group and the HFEA's international horizon-scanning panel. This work aims to keep ahead of developments by identifying what might affect the delivery of fertility treatment and embryo research over the next 5-10 years. Two key developments identified in the report include:

Microarrays for more effective embryo selection

Currently, IVF doctors assess the appearance of IVF embryos in order to select which they think are most likely to implant successfully into a woman. The horizon-scanning process has indicated that within the next 3-5 years it may be possible to carry out treatment using a microarray - sometimes called a 'gene chip' - which uses genes to identify which embryos are the most viable. For IVF patients, this could mean:

  • A better chance of IVF success, meaning less cycles and less cost
  • A lower risk of multiple birth - with a single, viable embryo transferred rather than two embryos which could lead to a multiple birth and its associated risks

In vitro growth of oocytes (eggs)

Within the next 2-3 years, doctors are predicted to start growing eggs for IVF treatment or research outside the body using ovarian tissue, instead of being obtained through the use of drugs to stimulate the ovaries. This technique began to be developed for women who lost their fertility through cancer treatment, but if proved effective in the long term could have a wider benefit for the sector, for example:

  • through lower / no use of stimulatory drugs (to cut side-effects for IVF patients and egg donors)
  • this could in turn mean a lower-risk and more available source of eggs for IVF treatment and embryo research
  • safer and more effective preservation of fertility for cancer patients (stimulatory drugs can exacerbate the cancer)

Other issues considered in the report include:

  • new techniques in genetic screening
  • gamete storage and manipulation
  • embryo culture

The HFEA first brought this international panel together in 2004 to gain early knowledge and an expert assessment of the global cutting-edge developments in research that could affect the fertility sector in the future. This important information in today's report spans two years of the HFEA's internal and external horizon-scanning work until the end of 2006, with key issues identified for consideration in 2007. This type of information could be crucial in helping the Authority to make future decisions about whether a new technique is safe and appropriate for use in fertility treatment.

Angela McNab, Chief Executive of the HFEA said:

" This area of science is extremely fast-paced and brings constant challenges and public concerns. For us as a regulator to provide proper and considered scrutiny, it is important that we anticipate as many developments as we can, in advance of scientists and doctors wishing to carry them out.

This is not just a matter of science, there are important scientific, ethical and legal implications to consider before we can ultimately make decisions as to whether they are safe and appropriate for treatment or research.

When we look at tomorrow's world of science there will always be some things that never come to fruition, alongside those which will become the mainstay of future treatment and research. We want to nurture any developments that will improve outcomes for infertile people or future research, provided we are happy that they are medically and ethically sound.

We have already found the work in this first report to be invaluable in bringing together the work of the international panel with the work of our Policy team and expert Committee and are looking forward to the continuing benefit that the work of these international experts provides in strengthening the UK's regulatory system. "


Source: Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HEFA), UK.

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