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Further coverage from Colorado Public News. CPN focuses on uncovering significant information not being reported by anyone else in Colorado.

For In-Vitro, New Freezing Process Has 'Changed Everything'

Courtesy of the Schmalz family

In-vitro fertilization babies who are conceived from frozen, rather than fresh, embryos have a remarkably better chance of survival than from the method most used in the past, according to a new study by a Colorado physician who is considered one of the nation’s leaders in reproductive medicine.

Dr. William Schoolcraft, of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in Lonetree, says the scientific advancement has the potential to benefit thousands of Coloradans every year.

“For most couples (in-vitro fertilization is) the difference between children and no children,” he said.

In-vitro fertilization happens when eggs are removed from a woman’s ovaries and fertilized with sperm, then implanted in the uterus to grow. The first healthy IVF baby was born in England in 1978. The procedure was introduced in the U.S. several years later, and in Colorado in 1982. Since then, more than 200,000 American babies have been conceived via IVF. In Colorado, 1,800 babies were born via this procedure in 2011 alone.

"For 20 years, we thought fresh was better and now we're seeing frozen is better."

Doctors have considered freezing the embryo before, but the process was not sophisticated enough. The new process, Schoolcraft said, has “changed everything.” 

The CCRM study, presented this fall to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, showed that women ages 36 to 42 had a successful and safe birth rate of nearly 75 percent using the frozen method, compared to about 54 percent of patients who used fresh fertilized eggs.

“It’s hard to wrap our arms around it,” Schoolcraft said of the higher success rate.  “For 20 years, we thought fresh was better and now we’re seeing frozen is better.”  

The Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine’s study found that women using the frozen process carry the fetuses four to six days longer and have fewer miscarriages. In addition, parents can have chromosomal screening on the frozen embryo to detect birth defects.

Also, implanting a single frozen embryo means couples will have just one child per birth. Multiple babies normally are common with IVF, and can be less safe than single births. The cost for an in-vitro fertilization is nearly $13,500 and up, not including medications and lab work.

Stephanie and Jeannine Schmalz, a couple from Littleton, used IVF in all three of their children’s pregnancies, including daughter, Lucy, 2, and older twin siblings Katie and Ryan, 4.

“I call Lucy my third triplet two years later,” Stephanie Schmalz said. “She was conceived on the same day as our twins but then she was frozen. And two years later she was thawed and then implanted and here she is. We are the most traditional non-traditional family you’ll ever meet.”

Stephanie Schmalz says Lucy was a bigger and stronger infant than her brother and sister, who were born premature. Schmalz says she believes her partner, Jeannine – who carried all three children – was in much better physical health than she was when the twins were implanted as fresh embryos. That’s because Jeannine’s body was not as stressed out from producing eggs through rigorous hormone therapy. Schoolcraft concurs the process allows women’s bodies to rest and recover between getting the intensive hormone treatment and having the embryo implanted.

The previous school of thought was that women should produce eggs with the help of hormones, and then have the embryos implanted as soon as possible.

But using a frozen embryo is far less complicated. And, because couples don’t need to become pregnant immediately, the process is often far more convenient for would-be parents. Schoolcraft said this is helpful for rural Coloradans, who in the past have had to make many trips to the Front Range to conceive. With the option of using a frozen embryo, these families can literally now make an appointment to get pregnant. 

“In rural Colorado there may be a family doctor and maybe an ObGyn but typically not a fertility specialist,” he said. “But now, they can plan when it’s convenient to come back for the frozen transfer whether it’s their farming schedule or their work schedule and they find it much easier to incorporate into their life.”

This was the scenario for Kiley Sahr and her husband Chris, who live in the remote mountain town of Crested Butte. The Sahrs used the frozen process to conceive now-18 month old twins Ayla and Alia.

In a Colorado Public News interview, Kiley Sahr described the process as a huge help. It allowed her to produce her eggs using hormone therapy, and then return home to allow her body to rest and recover before the actual implanting occurred. In short, the Sahrs waited to get pregnant until it was most convenient.

“We waited until October to do our frozen embryo transfer,” she said. “This is also a time that is considered offseason for us in the mountains so it would be easier for us to both get away again.”

Colorado Public News is created in partnership with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station. It is led by editor Ann Imse. Others on the Colorado Public News team include:Cara DeGette, managing editorNoelle Leavitt, recruiting and social media directorSonya Doctorian, video journalistDrew Jaynes, webmaster and photographerJournalists Bill Scanlon, Dennis Huspeni, Jody Berger, Sara Burnett, Jerd Smith, Michele Conklin, Andy Piper, Lauren Rickel, Raj Sharan, Amanda TurnerRobert D. Tonsing, publication designer and entrepreneur
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