Unlike sperm, human eggs are difficult to preserve, but researchers say they are getting closer to success.
Josephine Marcotty, Star Tribune
Sperm are different than eggs. They are easy to acquire, and they are never in short supply. And they can be frozen, which is a huge advantage when it comes to infertility.
That last distinction, however, may soon change. Researchers say they are only a few years from figuring out how to freeze eggs. And if they do, it could revolutionize women's reproductive lives as much as the birth control pill did 40 years ago. Egg freezing would not only allow women much greater freedom in choosing egg donors, but they could also preserve their own eggs, making the biological clock a thing of the past.
"It will detoxify the whole thing," said Steve Snyder, an attorney who runs a Maple Grove infertility agency called International Assisted Reproduction Center.
Sperm freezing and banking have been possible since the 1950s. Today, there are about a dozen large sperm banks in the United States that pay donors about $75 per time. For years the banks have offered increasingly sophisticated, searchable donor databases that include photos, detailed personal and medical histories, and audio interviews. Customers, either single women or infertile men, need only pick their donor and pay a few hundred dollars, and a few days later receive a vial of frozen sperm in the mail.
Human egg cells, on the other hand, are finicky. They are the largest of all human cells and contain a lot of water. When frozen, the water crystalizes, usually destroying the cell's structure. Experts say that pregnancy rates from frozen eggs are less than 20 percent, though some claim higher success rates.
But researchers say that they are getting closer to new ways to safely freeze mature eggs. Already at least two companies are promoting themselves as "egg banks," where women can either deposit their own frozen eggs or buy those provided by other women.
Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago recently won a five-year, $26 million federal research grant to study both how to freeze ovarian tissue and how to ripen immature human eggs outside the body. The grant, which will be shared among five research institutions, is dedicated to preserving fertility for young female cancer patients whose ovaries are often destroyed by radiation and chemotherapy.
The potential, however, may be much larger than that.
"When you graduate from college, instead of getting a car, you would have your eggs frozen," said Marla Libraty, vice president of marketing for Extend Fertility, a three-year-old Boston-based egg bank that charges about $15,000 to women who want to freeze eggs for later use. So far it has about 100 customers, she said, but the number is growing. "This will transform the way we look at having babies," she said