When Jessica Dickson went to the doctor for a sonogram on Tuesday, she was absolutely certain she was 15 weeks pregnant — her smartphone app had calculated that for her.
Even more high-tech was the way Dickson became pregnant in the first place: She had her eggs frozen and stored, then thawed and fertilized in a laboratory before they were implanted in her womb.
The 31-year-old woman is the first in the Kansas City area to have a successful pregnancy with frozen eggs, her doctor says.
“It’s funny, we didn’t realize how unusual a procedure this was until we got the positive pregnancy test,” Dickson said as she sat beaming next to her husband, Ryan, 32.
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Freezing human eggs for later use isn’t new. The first child conceived from a frozen egg was born in the mid-1980s. But it has only been in the past half-dozen years, as technology improved and its safety was demonstrated, that the procedure has taken off in the United States. Now, perhaps a third or more of fertility clinics nationwide freeze eggs.
Frozen eggs offer the hope of future pregnancies to several groups of women, said Dickson’s fertility doctor, S. Samuel Kim of the University of Kansas Medical Center. Those groups include women who want to pursue a career before having children, women whose fertility will be jeopardized by cancer treatment, and couples who have religious or ethical objections to producing frozen embryos that may not be used for a pregnancy.
“They think this (frozen embryo) is a life and they don’t want to waste it,” Kim said. “The (frozen) egg is just a cell, so there is no ethical problem.”
Even as a growing number of clinics are freezing eggs, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the professional organization of fertility experts, still considers the procedure experimental.
Kim, whose clinic is in Overland Park, began offering the procedure about a year and a half ago. He says he is the first in the Kansas City to do so. So far at the KU clinic, he has frozen the eggs of Dickson and of two other women. One had an unsuccessful pregnancy; the other still has her eggs in the freezer.
Kim estimated that about 1,000 babies worldwide have been born from frozen eggs. But good statistics on pregnancies or births from frozen eggs in the United States are hard to come by.
Not many of the women who have had their eggs frozen have had them implanted yet. They are still a tiny percentage of the more than 60,000 births each year in the U.S. that involve assisted reproductive technologies.
But the numbers babies born from frozen eggs are likely to increase. Technology has changed considerably to improve the likelihood that frozen eggs will still be viable when they are thawed.
Eggs are the largest cell in the body and are made up largely of water. Freezing eggs risks the formation of damaging ice crystals. To minimize this risk, doctors originally froze eggs slowly over the course of several hours. But now, doctors are using a new procedure called vitrification to flash freeze the eggs before crystals have a chance to develop. Chemical preservatives are added to the eggs, and they are immersed in liquid nitrogen to negative 321 degrees.
Doctors also have optimized the procedures for using the eggs — determining, for example, the ideal amount of time to wait before fertilizing a newly thawed egg.
These improvements have opened egg freezing to more women, and that has been a decidedly mixed blessing, Mitchell Rosen, director of the University of California, San Francisco, Fertility Preservation Center.
Egg freezing was originally offered to women facing cancer treatment, Rosen said. Now women delaying childbirth for personal reasons are having it done.
But by the time a woman is 35, the odds are roughly 25 to 30 percent that eggs collected from her will result in a pregnancy.
“You could be delivering an empty promise,” said Rosen, whose clinic offers the procedure. “Do we create more infertile people by discouraging women from getting pregnant at an appropriate age? It’s something I struggle with every day.”
The Dicksons had been trying for several years to become pregnant when doctors referred them to Kim. Jessica underwent several weeks of hormone therapy to mature her eggs, and on Valentine’s Day this year, Kim collected nine to freeze. This summer, a course of action was determined for their pregnancy, so the eggs were all thawed and five were fertilized.
“They met in a petri dish and were together for a week before meeting me,” Dickson said.
Kim implanted two embryos which resulted in a single pregnancy. Dickson is due April 30.
Kim said he is limiting egg freezing to women no older than 38 or 39, citing the same concerns Rosen expressed.
“I’m always preaching, try to get pregnant before 35 if at all possible,” he said.
Will the Dicksons try to have more children? “We don’t know what the future holds,” Jessica said.