Tuesday 28 February 2017

Parenting: ' I was told I'd never have kids - but science gave me Mae'

Innovative treatments give couples renewed hope of having a child, writes Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

Library image. Photo: PA
Library image. Photo: PA

Embryologist Kathryn Berrisford spent her working days in a lab at a fertility clinic, making babies for couples who had struggled to conceive naturally. But when she went home, she continued dealing with infertility -- her own.

Kathryn was 31 when she and her partner Joss -- now her husband -- decided to try for a baby. Thanks to her job, she was only too aware that older women often struggled to fall pregnant. She thought that at 31, time would be on her side.

She became pregnant almost instantly, but miscarried. Over the next 18 months, she had four pregnancies that all ended in miscarriages. Initial tests could find nothing wrong with either Kathryn or Joss or any explanation for the repeated miscarriages.

"By this stage, I was getting desperate," says Kathryn.

"The doctors said there was nothing else they could do -- they just told me to keep trying and that one day, hopefully I would have a pregnancy that worked out."

But Kathryn felt that time was running out. She couldn't just keep trying to get pregnant in the desperate hope that one would be a success. So she turned to the experts she worked with at the CARE Fertility clinic in Nottingham to ask for their help.

Kathryn and Joss were seen by a reproductive immunology specialist who was confident that he could get to the bottom of the problem. A simple blood test revealed that Kathryn and Joss had matching tissue types.

When the foetus embedded in Kathryn's womb, its cells were so similar to her own natural make-up that her body failed to recognise that she was pregnant, and didn't then supply the embryo with the nourishment it needed to survive.

There was a treatment: Kathryn would be injected with Joss's white blood cells, causing an allergic reaction, so that when she got pregnant again, her body would recognise the cells as 'foreign', and the nurturing mechanism would kick into gear. The procedure was known as Leucocyte Immune Therapy.

Within a month, Kathryn was expecting again -- and this time there was a happy ending. Mae was born in June 2005; her little brother Luke was born 13 months later following the same injections.

"It was the most amazing feeling in my life, to think that you will never have a child and then to get two," says Kathryn.

"When I watch the two of them playing together, I can't believe that we got everything that we wanted."

Twenty years ago, Kathryn would probably never have had a baby. But nearly 34 years after the birth of the world's first 'test tube' baby -- Louise Brown was born on July 25, 1978, at Oldham General Hospital as a result of IVF -- options for infertile couples are increasing all the time.

In Ireland, a growing number of clinics are offering more advanced fertility treatment in addition to the standard IVF, where the man's sperm is injected in a lab into his partner's eggs, and the resulting embryo is implanted a few days later into the mother's womb.

The CARE Fertility group of clinics, which are recognised as being among the most advanced, opened a unit at the Beacon hospital in Sandyford, Dublin, last month to meet demand fuelled largely by the growing number of women postponing pregnancy to advance their careers. The average age of a first-time mum in Ireland is now 29 -- just 20 years ago it was 25.

Beacon Care Fertility will offer the kind of reproductive immunology that helped Kathryn Berrisford to conceive. But they're also planning to offer patients more controversial treatments. The clinic's management says that, subject to the approval of the Irish Medicines Board, for which they have applied and are waiting on a response, they will be the first Irish provider of a treatment known as PGD.

PGD -- or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis -- is used for couples who are at risk of passing on an inherited disorder to their unborn child. During PGD, the embryo is probed and analysed for traces of the disorder. If any genetic abnormalities are discovered, the embryo will not be implanted. The technology is also used to create 'saviour siblings' -- babies designed to be a tissue match for an older brother or sister suffering from a genetic disorder, which a tissue donation could improve or cure.

PGD has many opponents, not least the pro-life movement. Writing in the Irish Independent last month, columnist David Quinn said he was concerned about the availability of such techniques, questioning if it was right to kill a cystic fibrosis sufferer, for instance, before they were even born. "How is this not eugenics?" he asked.

In the States, the technology is already commonly used for selecting the gender of your baby. The potential applications of the technique could be chilling, particularly in Ireland where there is no legislation governing reproductive technology.

But the managing director at CARE Fertility has no such reservations. Dr Simon Fishel is one of the world's leading fertility experts, his biggest discovery being the importance of immobilising sperm -- by cutting off the tail -- before injecting it into the egg in the lab, greatly increasing the success of embryo creation. Dr Fishel was there at the very beginning, working at Cambridge in the 1970s with Professor Robert Edwards on the technology which would bring Louise Brown into the world. He understands why people are frightened, but insists that the new procedures, used ethically, are nothing but positive. "All the new technologies that have come along have been terrifying to those who are not familiar with this world," he said last month while in Dublin to open the clinic.

"But what is more important is there is a clinical imperative to help couples, and to create an opportunity for those who currently can't be treated.

"What we are doing is important, necessary, and extremely clinically useful. We need to be able to allay fears that what we have here is nothing but positive, good medicine, and it is not taking us anywhere that is risky.

"I've spent my life trying to overcome these problems. If we used all the technologies available to us, we could help couples in 95pc of situations.

"I used to tell my students that if we woke up tomorrow morning and found that the whole planet was infertile, it will become the number one political agenda. Everything else would pale into insignificance, because there would be no hope or no future. For individual couples who can't conceive, they feel that enormity. It is my duty and my passion to help them."

And for the couples who now have a family they might never have had otherwise, there's no debate about the merits of these new advances.

"Sometimes you just have to do what you need to do," argues Vicki Ward (34), whose little girl, Lottie, was born in November.

Vicki had four failed rounds of IVF before it was discovered she had very high levels of what are known as killer cells. "Basically my immune system was too strong, and it was fighting off the pregnancies," she says.

"It was heartbreaking."

Vicki and her husband, Simon, opted for an advanced technique called Array CGH, where the eggs harvested for IVF are screened for chromosome abnormalities which increase the likelihood of miscarriage or of having a baby with Down Syndrome.

"We had 16 eggs in total. Four of them were good, so they implanted two and froze the other two. And then we got pregnant and had Lottie.

"If it wasn't for the more advanced technology, we would never have had a baby. I did worry when we were going through the procedures that we were messing with what should happen naturally, but on the other hand we thought that the science has developed to a point that could help us.

"Sometimes you just have to do what you need to do -- I know people don't agree with it but we do because we needed the help. And having Lottie was just fantastic."

Irish Independent

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