December 29, 2010

Third IVF Triplet Born Years After Her Sisters

A British couple has given birth to their third daughter this year, twelve years after conceiving a set of triplets, of which two were born in 1998.

The three girls from Walsall, Great Britain, who were born more than a decade apart, are actually fraternal triplets born through in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Ryleigh Shepherd, the newest addition to Lisa and Adrian Shepherd's family, came from the same batch of embryos that allowed her parents to give birth to twins Megan and Bethany.

Experts in Great Britain said they do not know of any other case in the country in which three siblings from the same round of fertility treatment have been born with such an age gap.

"It seemed strange to think that we were using embryos that we had stored all those years ago, that were conceived at the same time as the girls," Lisa Shepherd, 37, told Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.

"We knew that if we had another baby it would in effect be the girls' triplet as they were all conceived at the same time," she said, adding they look exactly alike.

How long embryos can be frozen and remain usable is still unknown, but US fertility experts say they have great confidence in the success of new reproductive techniques.

"It's incredibly common for people to go back and second and third time," Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE, the National Infertility Association, told ABC News. "There have been recorded cases of kids born far longer apart. This doesn't tip the scales."

There are some 400,000 embryos in frozen storage in the US, according to fertility experts.

Couples undergoing IVF can save their eggs at a cost of around $200 to $300 per month for future use. Many couples choose to donate their frozen embryos to other infertile couples, according to Collura. "When they are done with their family building and years pass, they can donate to another couple," she said.

Collura said that cryogenic techniques have improved significantly since the 1990s, and experts speculate that frozen embryos can last "15 to 20 years or more."

Women in their 30s who are undergoing IVF can be hopeful that their frozen embryos might be used later on.

Such was the case with the Shepherds, who were married in 1994 and wanted to start a family. But Lisa was diagnosed with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries, and was told her chances of getting pregnant was slim.

In September 1998, the couple underwent IVF treatment -- 24 eggs were collected and 14 were successfully fertilized with Adrian's sperm. Two embryos were implanted and the remaining 12 were placed in frozen storage.

Soon the couple was expecting twin girls, who were born by Caesarian section.

When the twins were nine years old, the Shepherd's began thinking of having another baby. "We had been so busy raising the twins that it wasn't until then that we stopped to think about having another one," said Lisa. "'So we asked the girls what they thought about having another addition to the family and they really wanted it."

The couple returned to Midland Fertility Clinic in Dec 2009 for another cycle of IVF, using their now ten-year-old embryos. Ryleigh arrived in November 2010.

"The girls are thrilled to have a sister -- and they know that she was conceived at the same time that they were, but has been in the freezer," said Lisa Shepherd.

Doctors say there are only a few safety concerns when using long-frozen embryos.

"Once an embryo is frozen, it's essentially frozen in time," said Dr. Jani Jenson, a reproductive endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. "As a group, children born with IVF are one of the most scrutinized cohorts."

But because these technologies are only 4 decades old, nobody knows how these babies will age, but all other studies indicate IVF is virtually safe.

"The data we know from fresh and frozen transfers are that it doesn't put them at any unique or known risks like learning disabilities or birth defects," Jansen told ABC News.

Ethical concerns have been raised about IVF risks, according to Dr. Ellen Clayton, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University, but the "relevant metric" is how parents make other choices about having children.

"The current thinking is that parents are free to make pretty broad choices," said Clayton. "They are free to continue a pregnancy with Down syndrome. People make all kinds of choices that are potentially risky."

As for the Shepherds, "God bless them," she said. "This looks like a happy family that is now even happier."