At the end of the past year, a baby was born in the United States, conceived already 27 years ago. The embryo was frozen and stored in a cryobank – it was planted with a surrogate mother. In recent years, the birth of the so-called “snow babies” have become commonplace in Russia. Interestingly, some experts consider babies born this way more robust than normal babies. We knew the details of the fantastic technology.
The first child from a frozen embryo was born back in 1984. Then, for these purposes, the slow freezing technique was used, which was subsequently abandoned. Since 1990 embryos have been preserved by vitrification – or quick freezing. Cooling is carried out with liquid nitrogen, then the frozen embryos are placed in special tubular containers in which they are stored at a temperature of minus 196 degrees Celsius.
Today, the most famous mother of snow babies born from frozen embryos is 29-year-old American Tina Gibson. The fact is that both of the woman’s children were born from embryos that had lain in the cryobank for the maximum number of years.
When preserving embryos, several embryos are usually frozen. This is necessary in case some of the embryos die during thawing, and so that a couple can have not one, but several children over the course of several years. Parents decide for themselves what to do with embryos that are not useful to them. They can be stored for an unlimited number of years, transferred to a special bank for adoption, given to scientists for research, or disposed of.
It was from the bank that the Gibson family received their embryos. The first girl of the couple, Emma, was born in 2017; before that, her embryo had been in a cryobank for 24 years. Thus, in terms of age, the embryo was only a year younger than its adoptive mother. Before this incident, doctors did not know exactly how long a frozen embryo can be stored. However, the story of Tina Gibson has proven that this period can most likely be infinitely long.
Three years later, the same American managed to set a new record. The second daughter of a woman, Molly, was born in October 2020 from an embryo frozen 27 years ago. Interestingly, both embryos implanted in a woman were preserved using the slow-freezing technology, which is considered by doctors to be not a very reliable method. Doctors believe that embryos undergoing this procedure are more likely to die over time.
Another interesting case occurred with frozen embryos in the United States in 1998. American couple Anlrian and Lisa Shepard decided on IVF after four years of unsuccessful attempts to have a baby naturally. In total, 14 eggs were fertilized.
Two embryos were implanted into the woman, and the rest were frozen. Lisa gave birth to two healthy twin girls. After 11 years, the couple wanted to have another child, using one of the canned embryos. As a result, in 2010, the Shapards had another daughter, like two peas in a pod similar to their older sisters. The remaining 11 frozen embryos of the couple are still in the cryobank and are waiting in the wings.
Cryopreservation – pros and cons
Rapid freezing is considered more reliable than slow freezing due to the survival rate of preserved embryos. After thawing embryos, frozen in a slow way, only half of the embryos survive, in case of vitrification – 80%. The embryos are thawed at room temperature, then the embryos are placed in a special nutrient medium and they are checked for viability.
– As a rule, embryos are frozen by couples who cannot have children on their own and undergo in vitro fertilization, – explains the reproductive doctor Olga Nechaeva… – Due to the fact that the percentage of successful infusions is small, hormonal stimulation is given to a woman before the procedure. Thus, not one, but several eggs mature in the expectant mother.
After their fertilization, only a part of the embryos are used for replanting, the rest are most often frozen with the consent of the partners. First of all, preserved embryos are needed in case the first transplant is unsuccessful, and the woman does not have a pregnancy or terminates.
Re-planting frozen embryos is less expensive than performing ovarian stimulation and re-fertilization of the egg. In addition, this method reduces the burden on the woman’s body. In addition, the couple may want another child in a few years. With frozen embryos, the procedure will be much faster, there is no need for long preparation for IVF. Cryopreservation is used for replanting embryos of a surrogate mother, as well as in cases when one of the partners suffers from an oncological disease and needs chemotherapy.
According to doctors, with cryopreservation, the survival rate of embryos is higher than that of frozen eggs. The fact is that the egg is 90% water, so there is a high probability of damage when frozen.
However, in addition to the advantages, embryo freezing, unfortunately, has its disadvantages. First of all, they are revealed when the opinion about the future fate of the frozen embryo between his father and mother disagrees.
In most countries, there is still no clear legislation that would regulate the field of embryo cryopreservation. The first precedent on this issue occurred in 2007 in the UK, and now it is, in fact, a guide to action for the courts of other countries in the event of disputes between partners.
The most famous case, Evans v. The United Kingdom, came before the Strasbourg Court. The Englishwoman Natalie Evans was diagnosed with an oncological disease, due to which it was necessary to undergo an operation to remove the ovaries. The woman decided before that to freeze her eggs so that she could later have children. However, her then partner persuaded Natalie to preserve the ready-made embryos obtained with the help of his sperm. Thus, the frozen embryo ceased to belong to Evans alone, but became the common property of the couple.
After a while, the young people broke up, and the man demanded that the frozen embryos be disposed of. For Natalie, embryos remained the only chance to have a baby of her own. The woman went through all possible judicial proceedings, but she was denied the right to preserve embryos without her father’s consent.
In Russia, disputes between partners regarding frozen embryos are usually settled on the basis of agreements signed by them with clinics where cryopreservation was carried out. So in 2015, a Russian tried to achieve the disposal of frozen embryos after a divorce from his wife, but he was refused due to the fact that, according to an agreement with a medical institution, the fate of the embryos was determined by his wife. In another case, the woman was prohibited from replanting a preserved embryo after the death of her spouse, since the contract stated that in the event of the death of one of the partners, the embryos must be destroyed.
Another significant disadvantage of freezing embryos is the position of some religions, in particular, Orthodoxy, regarding their disposal. Believers consider this a great sin, tantamount to abortion or infanticide. Of course, no one bothers couples to store their embryos indefinitely, but you have to pay for this pleasure.
How much will it cost to try
“On average, the cryopreservation procedure costs 200 thousand rubles, for older women this amount is higher,” says Olga Nechaeva. – The IVF procedure for medical reasons is included in the MHI package. So parents who are unable to conceive a child on their own can obtain full payment for this service from the state.
However, future parents will have to pay for the storage of frozen embryos in any case. On average, delivery to a cryobank and storage of one embryo within a year will cost 6 thousand rubles. Usually, a discount is provided when paying several years in advance. We recommend that women undergo an egg collection procedure for cryopreservation of embryos under the age of 45. Although, of course, there are times when this procedure occurs after 50 or even 55 years.
According to the doctor, couples have the right to independently decide on freezing their embryos, but in some cases, doctors strongly recommend this procedure. Indications for cryopreservation are surrogacy, unsuccessful attempts at replanting “fresh” embryos, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome in women, when re-stimulation is contraindicated, or illness of one of the spouses.
Embryologists believe that cryopreservation does not in any way affect the development and health of the baby in the future. Freezing the embryo in itself cannot lead to any deformities or pathologies in the baby. The procedure can be dangerous directly only for the embryo itself, because in some cases the embryos simply cannot withstand cryopreservation. However, if after thawing the embryo continued its development, then there is no cause for concern.
Some experts even believe that children born from frozen embryos grow stronger, have good immunity and get sick less often than children born naturally. Perhaps this is due not to cryopreservation, but to the fact that only the strongest embryos are selected for this procedure.