IVF as cheap as £170, doctors claim

By James Gallagher
Health and Science reporter, BBC News

image captionThe science behind IVF is getting cheaper

The cost of IVF can be cut dramatically from thousands of pounds to around £170 to start a "new era" in IVF, fertility doctors from Belgium claim.

Twelve children have been born through the technique, which replaces expensive medical equipment with "kitchen cupboard" ingredients.

Data, presented at fertility conference in London, suggests the success rate is similar to conventional IVF.

Experts said there was big potential to open up IVF to the developing world.

Cut price

Fertility treatment is expensive. In the UK, it costs around £5,000 per cycle.

High levels of the gas carbon dioxide are needed when growing embryos in an IVF clinic in order to control the acidity levels. This is maintained using carbon dioxide incubators, medical grade gas and air purification.

Instead, the team at the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology mixed inexpensive citric acid and bicarbonate of soda to produce carbon dioxide.

Lead researcher Prof Willem Ombelet said: "We succeeded with an almost Alka-Selzer like technique. Our first results suggest it is at least as good as normal IVF and we now have 12 healthy babies born."

The results, presented to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference, showed a pregnancy rate of 30% - approximately the same as IVF.

The researchers believe the cost of IVF can be cut to just 10-15% of services in Western countries.

'Not for everyone'

The technique cannot completely replace conventional IVF.

It would not help men with severe infertility who require more advanced treatment in which the sperm is injected into the egg, known intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection.

However, Prof Ombelet told the BBC the aim was to bring fertility treatment to the rest of the world.

"If you don't have a child in Africa, or also South America or Asia, it's a disaster. It's a disaster from an economic point of view, a psychological point of view. They throw you out of the family. You need to help them and nobody helps them."

Even in rich, Western, countries many couples are still unable to afford IVF and the studies are attracting interest.

"We've got demand from the US already."

Geeta Nargund, at St George's Hospital, London, is planning to introduce the techniques to the UK: "We have an obligation to bring down the cost of IVF, otherwise we'll have a situation where only the affluent can afford it."

Stuart Lavery, the director of IVF at Hammersmith Hospital in London, said the study had the potential to have a big impact globally.

"This isn't just about low cost IVF in west London, this is all about can you bring IVF to countries which have unsophisticated medical services where infertility has an incredibly low profile.

"They've show that using a very cheap, very simple technique that you can culture embryos and you can do IVF.

"The weakness of the study is they've done it in a big lab in Belgium, so they need go out and do the same study in Africa now. But if this is real potentially you're talking about bringing IVF to corners of the world where there is no IVF. This is enormous, the potential implications for this could be quite amazing."

The researchers anticipate starting out in Ghana, Uganda or Cape Town.

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