But Aniston, 54, did not suddenly miss the boat. She’d tried IVF, she told an American magazine, her ‘baby-making road’ was tough. But her IVF, as for many women, did not work.
Indeed, the facts are that only around one in three IVF treatments produce a baby; success rates will get better with additional treatments, but they’ll also get worse with increasing female age. Natural fertility – and even rates of IVF success – begin their decline after the age of 35. According to figures from the fertility regulator a woman under 35 has a 32% chance of having a baby, which falls to under 20% for women aged 38-38 and to around 12% for those aged 40-42.
Yet despite her tough IVF challenges, there were still other fertility possibilities for Aniston, and the chance to have a baby after all. 'I would've given anything if someone had said to me, "Freeze your eggs. Do yourself a favor",' she confessed. 'You just don't think it. So here I am today. The ship has sailed.'
Egg freezing, as Aniston has come to learn, is a relatively recent fertility procedure. The first cases were reported around 20 years ago but only in young women facing cancer treatment and their likely loss of ovarian function. Removing and freezing their eggs (or ovarian tissue) might preserve their fertility for a later time when life had returned to normal – and when the eggs could be thawed and transferred to the ovary for natural conception or to the IVF lab for fertilisation.
It was this same technique of fertility preservation, now successful for medical reasons, which could similarly be applied in ‘fertile’ women who simply wished to delay their plans for a family. The procedure became known simply as ‘egg freezing’ – or elective egg freezing – but the reasons were now personal and not medical. But no-one had told Jennifer Aniston about it.
In Britain, elective egg freezing is not yet as popular as in the USA, but the numbers are rising rapidly. Here at London Women’s Clinic, for example, we have, for 10 years, run the UK’s largest egg-freezing programme and achieved excellent results for women who have returned to use their own eggs - or in many cases - the eggs provided by egg donors. Many live births have already occurred, and this includes a welcome but rare case of Ali, who froze her eggs at the age of 43 years and delivered healthy twins four years later when the eggs were thawed for treatment.
The procedure has been revolutionised by the rapid freezing technology of vitrification, a technique which reduces cells to a glass-like state in just a few seconds. Studies have shown repeatedly that the viability of thawed vitrified eggs is comparable to that found with fresh. Results from London Women’s Clinic, where we have frozen 30,000 eggs, can be found in international medical journals, where we have published our studies from frozen donor eggs, as well as frozen own eggs.
But what really matters in the viability of any egg used in reproductive medicine is the age of the egg – even more so than the age of the patient. And this would have been an important lesson for Jennifer Aniston and for anyone else contemplating elective egg freezing. The lesson is clearly illustrated in success rates found in routine egg donation treatments; in standard IVF, as we have seen, live birth rates in a woman of, say, 40 will be around 20%, but if that same patient received her egg not from herself but from a young egg donor live birth rate would be over 30%. The young age of the egg seems to cancel out the ‘older’ age of the recipient.
And so it is with elective egg freezing, which, according to Dr Kamal Ahuja, senior embryologist and Scientific Director at London Women’s Clinic, may readily be considered as a form of egg donation to yourself. 'The sooner eggs are collected for freezing and storage,' he says, 'the better the results will be when they are thawed, fertilised and transferred for pregnancy.'
Excellent results from egg freezing programmes have been published by some clinics, suggesting that a small but growing proportion of egg-freezers will return to thaw their eggs for pregnancy, and indicating ever more confidence in the procedure. Vitrification is now an essential technology in the IVF lab, and its success in egg freezing is beyond doubt. And while most egg-freezers take up their pregnancy options within a few years of egg collection, the law in Britain allows freeze-storage for up to 55 years.
That’s a long time to preserve fertility, and much too long for most, even if freezing eggs at a young age, but it does reflect the growing confidence in freezing – eggs, embryos and sperm - in reproductive medicine.
No-one can guarantee a live birth from any treatment, but egg-freezing as a technology is now a mature procedure. No-one told Jennifer Aniston about it, but there’s much more to say now than then.
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