In the world of fertility, doctors are making huge strides forward to make treatments more successful — and more affordable — for women everywhere. In Belgium, doctors and scientists have developed a low-cost version of test-tube baby technology to be used in developing countries (where the sophisticated, high-end costs are entirely unaffordable).
The new procedures, researchers said on Monday, cost somewhere around $260 per treatment cycle and were able to deliver results that didn't differ much with conventional IVF treatments. The simplified process is just 10 to 15 percent of the current cost of IVF in the westernized world. Most importantly, it suggests that infertility care could one day become universally accessible. To date, more than 5 million babies have been born around the globe since the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978. The treatment, however, remains virtually exclusive to developed countries where the high-end cost and the advanced medical materials are available.
Elke Klerkx, from the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology who led the study, told reporters that, "Infertility care is probably the most neglected healthcare problem of developing countries, affecting more than 2 million couples according to the WHO (World Health Organization)." So, in order to cut costs and make fertility treatments universal, Klerkx and a dedicated team of researchers set out to find a new, cost-conscious method.
They used an embryo culture method that removes the need for much of the expensive laboratory equipment that's primarily used in North American and European IVF clinics. The initial results of the study were in line with the findings from a previous study, which showed similar success rates between the standard and low-cost methods. The groundbreaking results are a "major step towards universal fertility care," Klerkx said. "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 where IVF is the only solution."
Now, Klerkx and her colleagues are working to bring a low-cost IVF system to every country around the world, including Africa, where it is noted that there is a huge need for fertility treatments. While they still have their reservations about its successes (the low-cost procedure was still performed in a developed world setting, as much of the laboratory work was done in Belgium), Klerkx believes that larger trials in one or more developing country would be needed initially to test the process and its success fully. Their eyes are on Africa because high rates of infertility caused by tubal blockages, chlamydia, gonorrhea and tuberculosis have led to social isolation for women.
The cost of building and setting up a high-quality IVF lab is between 1.2 and 2.3 million American dollars, but Klerkx and her Genk researchers estimate that the low-cost version would cost less than $230,000 to build. Currently, the team is working on a low-cost IVF laboratory that would serve as a template for poorer countries. Construction is slated to begin in November of 2013 and it will even provide training for clinicians who wish to work in developing countries.
Would you like to see a low-cost IVF lab in the United States?