Embryo cryopreservation (a primer)
The first pregnancy derived from a frozen human embryo was reported by Alan Trounson & Linda Mohr in 1983 (although the fetus aborted spontaneously at about 20 weeks of gestation); the first term pregnancies derived from frozen human embryos were reported by Zeilmaker et al. and the first human baby hatched via a rate frozen freezing process was born in 1984. Since then and up to 2008 it is estimated that between 350,000 and half a million IVF babies have been born from embryos controlled rate frozen and then stored in liquid nitrogen; additionally a few hundred births have been born from vitrified oocytes but firm figures are hard to come by.
On the safety of embryo cryopreservation, a 2008 study reported at the ESRE discovered that children born from frozen embryos did “better and had a higher birth weight” than children born from a fresh transfer. The study was conducted out of Copenhagen and evaluated babies born during the years 1995–2006. 1267 children born after Frozen Embryo Transfer (FET), via controlled-rate freezers and storage in liquid nitrogen, were studied and categorised into three groups. 878 of them were born using frozen embryos that were created using standard in vitro fertilisation in which the sperm were placed into a dish close to the egg but had to penetrate the egg on their own. 310 children were born with frozen embryos created using ICSI in which a single sperm was injected into a single egg, and 79 were born where the method of creation of the embryos was not known.
17,857 babies born after a normal IVF/ICSI with fresh embryos were also studied and used as a control group or reference group. Data on all of the children’s outcomes were taken regarding birth defects, birth weights, and length of pregnancy. The results of the study showed that the children who came from frozen embryos had higher birth weights, gave longer pregnancies and produced fewer “pre-term” births. There was no difference in the rate of birth defects whether the children came from frozen embryos or fresh embryos. In the FER group, the birth defect rate was 7.7% compared to the fresh transfer group which was slightly higher at 8.8%. The scientists also found that the risk for multiple pregnancies was increased in the fresh embryo transfers.
Around 11.7% of the ICSI and 14.2% of the IVF frozen cases were multiple pregnancies. In the case of fresh embryos, 24.8% of the ICSI and 27.3% of the IVF were multiple pregnancies. It should also be noted that maternal age was significantly higher in the FER group. This is significant since based on age one would have expected a higher rate of problems and birth defects. The study adds to the body of knowledge suggesting that traditional embryo freezing is a safe procedure. It was unclear however why the frozen embryo children did better than their fresh embryo counterparts
If multiple embryos are generated, patients may choose to freeze embryos that are not transferred. Those embryos are slow frozen and then placed in liquid nitrogen and can be preserved for a long time. There are currently 500,000 frozen embryos in the United States.
The advantage is that patients who fail to conceive may become pregnant using such embryos without having to go through a full IVF cycle. Or, if pregnancy occurred, they could return later for another pregnancy. Spare embryos resulting from fertility treatments may be donated to another woman or couple, and embryos may be created, frozen and stored specifically for transfer and donation by using donor eggs and sperm.