In September 2009, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced that the freezing and subsequent thawing of human eggs, otherwise known as oocytes, “is no longer experimental”.
The significance of this declaration is that science and medicine finally figured out how to freeze or “cryopreserve” mature human eggs that are ready for fertilization.
These very delicate cells whose chromosomes are stretched out on what is called the spindle (think high school biology), defied reliable freezing until newer technologies developed. Simply said, as the eggs freeze, the ice crystals form inside the cells and tear the delicate inner structures apart, injuring the cells.
The new method called “vitrification” is basically a flash freeze technique that avoids the formation of ice crystals. And so, now that freezing eggs is reliable, it can be offered to patients, and this has spawned a proliferation of programs offering this service.
So what’s so important about reliably frozen eggs? Who does it help?
There are several groups of people who will be candidates and could benefit from egg freezing.
First are those women whose egg supplies are depleted and require eggs from a donor. Until now, a donor had to be found and then removal of the eggs had to be timed with the mother to be. This led to many logistical difficulties including travel and matching the hormonal cycles of the donor and recipients.
Now, faster than you can imagine “Egg Banks” are springing up where eggs have been previously collected and frozen. Patients can choose from a menu or catalog just like they can from the donors at a sperm bank. The frozen eggs can be shipped to your local fertility center, while some more proprietary egg banks demand that you travel to them. This eliminates so much of the headaches of working with an active donor and possibly reduces the cost of providing frozen eggs to the women who need them.
The second group to benefit, and who is actually being targeted by advertising campaigns, are women over 30 years old who do not have any immediate plans to start a family. Ten percent of women at age 30 and 25% of women at age 35 meet the criteria of “low egg reserve”. If they are not on the short term path to start a family, they can freeze eggs so as to be able to preserve or delay childbearing until they are ready.
Perhaps they are busy building a career or still in school or maybe “Mr. Right” has so far eluded them. If they have not given up hope of finding that person, they can preserve unfertilized eggs and store them until they are ready to make a baby.
The third group is young women, such as recent college graduates. In fact, it is their parents and grandparents who are being approached and marketed to provide these women in their early twenties with an ”insurance policy”. Rather than give the recent graduate a gift or cash, “give them a gift of life” by paying to have them cryopreserve their eggs in the hope that they will never need to use them.
There are other women who will benefit from this, such as women who are at high risk for ovarian or breast cancer and need their ovaries removed at a young age. Perhaps suddenly a woman may discover that she needs to undergo toxic anticancer treatments for let’s say leukemia that could injure her egg supply. And there are others.
At my clinic, Fertility Partnership in St. Peters, Missouri, we offer a round of egg collection, freezing and a year of storage for five thousand dollars. Two rounds will cost eight thousand dollars. These costs do not include medications, which are, unfortunately, generally not covered by insurance companies. The technology is simple, reliable, and with our society changing the life-path of so many women this technology is already being quickly accessed by many women who wish to control their fertility destiny.