Freezing Eggs to Beat the Biological Clock


May 23, 2006 — -- Megan Griswold is beautiful and bright, with a thriving acupuncture practice in Seattle and degrees from Columbia and Yale. She is also single.

Griswold, 37, had envisioned herself married with children by age 36. But as millions of women from the "Sex and the City" generation know all too well, relationships fail, plans change, and sometimes finding Mr. Right or climbing the corporate ladder takes longer than expected.

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Megan knows what many women her age don't, mainly because it's not part of a woman's typical gynecological checkup: that her egg quality will drastically decrease as she gets older, so much so that by age 40 she has only a 10 percent chance of getting pregnant using her own eggs. Uncertain where things with her then-boyfriend were headed, she took a radical step to try to stop her biological clock in its tracks. She froze her eggs.

"I was starting to get to that age where I was feeling the real desire to go ahead and be a mother, and our relationship wasn't at the point where he was certain that he wanted to do that, and we weren't talking about being married, and so it was enough on my mind that I thought, well, I'm going to look into what I can ... I mean, men don't have the same concern," Griswold said.

Egg freezing -- the scientific term is oocyte cryopreservation -- isn't an entirely new concept, having several years ago become a way for women to try to preserve their fertility after chemotherapy. Back then, however, the procedure's success rates were low because, unlike a fertilized embryo, the egg cell is filled with water. When frozen, the egg forms ice crystals that then damage its integrity when thawed.

That changed in 2005 when scientists in Italy, spurred on by the country's strict laws restricting the freezing of embryos but permitting the freezing of unfertilized eggs, found a new method of freezing and thawing the eggs that kept them more intact.

The discovery has set off a sort of Manhattan Project among fertility doctors around the world, many of whom are conducting their own clinical trials in an attempt to perfect the thawing method. These doctors are seeing about a 40 percent to 50 percent success rate in getting patients pregnant using frozen eggs, approximately the same as for in vitro fertilization.

Yet despite this progress and the fact that many fertility clinics now offer egg freezing to any woman who wants it, the technology is still brand new. For some doctors, too new.

"We don't offer egg freezing to preserve fertility because we don't believe that technology is quite there yet," said Dr. Michael Alper, medical director at Boston IVF and an associate clinical professor of ob-gyn at Harvard Medical School. "And maybe fast forward six months, 12 months, 18 months, it will be. But so far, a study, a properly conducted study to show which technique is effective has not been done."

The American Society of Reproductive Medicine agrees, stating in its latest paper on the subject: "There is not yet sufficient data to recommend oocyte cryopreservation for the sole purpose of circumventing reproductive aging in healthy women."

In addition to being experimental, the procedure is expensive. Christy Jones, CEO of Extend Fertility, a company that links women who want to freeze their eggs with clinics that provide the service, cites the cost at about $13,000 per cycle, but she insists the peace of mind is worth it.

"When you also compare it to the other costs of having a child down the road, whether that be going to fertility treatments or the cost of adopting, which can run to $20- or $30,000 ... I think it's definitely an investment that's worthwhile," said Jones.

To Megan Griswold, it's worth the expense to feel as if she's done everything she can to ensure future motherhood. "You know, we have fairly misleading ideas about how easy it is to get pregnant when you're older, because there are some fairly high-profile people ... that get a lot of press for being older and having children, and for all we know, [it's with] donor eggs. I'm essentially my own egg donor."

Melinda Arons is a producer for ABC News' Nightline.