A new technique using basic equipment to perform IVF could dramatically reduce costs and make the treatment 'universally accessible', say scientists who report that 12 babies have so far been born from this approach.
The method would replace the expensive incubators and air purification systems typically used in IVF, that bring costs to around £5,000 per cycle in the UK. These systems control the acidity levels of the egg and sperm, which need to be in the window of pH 7.25-7.35. Using citric acid and sodium bicarbonate, which react to form carbon dioxide, the researchers were able to reach this optimum level where conception could occur.
The researchers found that the low-technology approach, which they compared to the reaction between Alka-Seltzer tablets and water, was just as effective as conventional IVF when tested in 35 cycles. Twenty-three of these cycles resulted in a viable embryo, and of these, seven women became pregnant. So far, 12 healthy babies have been born.
'Our initial results are proof of principle that a simplified culture system designed for developing countries can offer affordable and successful opportunities for infertility treatment', said Dr Elke Klerkx from the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology in Belgium, who presented the results. 'This is a major step towards universal fertility care'.
The method was developed as a solution to infertility in developing countries with low resources and limited medical equipment, but the team hopes that the technique can be rolled out in other countries, reducing IVF costs for the estimated 180 million infertile women worldwide. 'IVF is too costly for some people, or simply just not available', said Dr Klerkx.
'We estimate the cost of a treatment cycle can be less than €200 - with laboratory costs between 10 and 15 percent of those in Western-style programmes'.
However, fertilising the egg is just one of several steps involved in IVF. Women receiving this treatment would also require hormone treatment, so that eggs can be collected for fertilisation.
Mr Stuart Lavery, director of IVF at Hammersmith Hospital, welcomed the findings. 'Using a very cheap, very simple technique, you can culture embryos and you can do IVF', he said. 'If this is real, potentially you're talking about bringing IVF to corners of the world where there is no IVF. The potential implications for this could be quite amazing.'