After more than 20 years and nearly $200,000 worth of failed infertility treatments, Monique and Neil Ward of Stafford, England, have finally became the proud parents of twin boys, Britain's Press Association reports.
The Wards' 25-year struggle to become pregnant -- even though ultimately it was through the use of donor sperm and donor eggs -- raises a question many infertility specialists and aspiring parents face: Does there come a point when a couple should give up on trying to conceive?
After 15 failed attempts with various types of assisted reproductive technology since 1986, some might say the Wards were operating on blind optimism when they signed up for another $20,000 round of in vitro fertilization (IVF) with donor eggs and sperm last spring. An earlier round with this technique had failed five months before.
But against all odds, Monique Ward finally became pregnant. On Dec. 29, at the age of 46, she gave birth to two healthy twin boys, Walker and Benjamin.
"When I held them for the first time my eyes just filled up with tears," Mrs. Ward, a nurse, told London's Telegraph. "[I] am still pinching myself that after so long trying it finally happened."
In IVF, egg and sperm (whether from the couple or from donors) are collected and combined in a laboratory dish. Once the egg is fertilized successfully, the growing embryo is transferred to the mother-to-be's uterus where it -- hopefully -- will implant and begin to grow normally.
"What this story shows is that even if you've had lots of failed attempts with more conventional treatment, an older patient can still use donor egg and conceive successfully -- sometimes you're just going to need that high tech treatment," said Dr. Richard Paulson, chief of the division of reproductive endocrinology at the University of Southern California.
The Wards' case is certainly the extreme, but it can take many years of IVF for some couples to conceive, fertility experts say, especially if the couple is trying to conceive without the aid of donor eggs.
Dr. Sherman Silber, director of the Infertility Center of St. Louis at St. Luke's Hospital, shared one example from a colleague in which an Israeli woman went through 31 cycles of IVF before finally becoming pregnant.
In the U.S., due to the high cost of IVF, women are often advised to consider using donor eggs after several failed rounds of IVF given that the odds of conceiving with donor eggs is so much higher.
"It would be extremely unusual for a donor egg not to work" within a few tries," Silber said, "unless there is a uterine problem," which usually would have been identified early on in infertility counseling.
"Most of the time the sperm is not a problem," said Paulson. He said it is more common for the woman to have trouble producing viable embryos.
For the Wards, the quality of the sperm was also an issue because Mr. Ward had had a vasectomy earlier in life which had to be reversed. Such procedures produce working sperm only 50 percent of the time, said Paulson, so ultimately the couple needed to use donor sperm as well as donor eggs.
When you use donor eggs, "you tend to have a 50-50 chance of conceiving," Paulson said, so once Mrs. Ward started using donor eggs, "she flipped the coin in November and it came up tails but in April she flipped again and it came up heads and she had twins."