For many women, disease and/or diminished ovarian reserve precludes achieving a pregnancy with their own eggs. Since the vast majority of such women are otherwise quite healthy and physically capable of bearing a child, egg donation (ED) provides them with a realistic opportunity of going from infertility to parenthood.
Egg donation is associated with definite benefits. Firstly, in many instances, more eggs are retrieved from a young donor than would ordinarily be needed to complete a single IVF cycle. As a result, there are often supernumerary (leftover) embryos for cryopreservation and storage. Secondly, since eggs derived from a young woman are less likely than their older counterparts to produce aneuploid (chromosomally abnormal) embryos, the risk of miscarriage and birth defects such as Down’s syndrome is considerably reduced.
Egg Donation-related, fresh and frozen embryo transfer cycles account for 10%-15% of IVF performed in the United States. The vast majority of egg donation procedures performed in the U.S involve women with declining ovarian reserve. While some of these are done for premature ovarian failure, the majority are undertaken in women over 40 years of age. Recurrent IVF failure due to “poor quality” eggs or embryos is also a relatively common indication for ED in the U.S. A growing indication for ED is in cases of same-sex relationships (predominantly female) where both partners wish to share in the parenting experience by one serving as egg provider and the other, as the recipient.
Ninety percent of egg donation in the U.S is done through the solicitation of anonymous donors who are recruited through a state-licensed egg donor agency. It is less common for recipients to solicit known donors through the services of a donor agency, although this does happen on occasion. It is also not easy to find donors who are willing to enter into such an open arrangement. Accordingly, in the vast majority of cases where the services of a known donor is solicited, it is by virtue of a private arrangement. While the services of non-family members are sometimes sought, it is much more common for recipients to approach close family members to serve as their egg donor.
Some recipients feel the compulsion to know or at least to have met their egg donor, so as to gain first hand familiarity with her physical characteristics, intellect, and character. This having been said, in the U.S. it is much more common to seek the services of anonymous donors. In terms of disclosure to their family, friends and child(ren), recipients using anonymous donors tend to be far more open than those of known donors about the nature of the child’s conception. Most, if not all, egg donor agencies provide a detailed profile, photos, medical and family history of each prospective donor for the benefit and information of the recipient. Agencies generally have a website through which recipients can access donor profiles in the privacy of their own homes in order to select the ideal donor.
Interaction between the recipient and the egg donor program may be conducted in-person, by telephone or online in the initial stages. Once the choice of a donor has been narrowed down to two or three, the recipient is asked to forward all relevant medical records to their chosen IVF physician. Upon receipt of her records, a detailed medical consultation will subsequently held and a physical examination by the treating physician or by a designated alternative qualified counterpart is scheduled. This entire process is usually overseen, facilitated and orchestrated by one of the donor program’s nurse coordinators who, in concert with the treating physician, will address all clinical, financial and logistical issues, as well as answering any questions. At the same time, the final process of donor selection and donor-recipient matching is completed.
Egg donor agencies usually limit the age of egg donors to women under 35 years with normal ovarian reserve in an attempt to minimize the risk of ovarian resistance and negate adverse influence of the “biological clock” (donor age) on egg quality.
No single factor instills more confidence regarding the reproductive potential of a prospective egg donor than a history of her having previously achieved a pregnancy on her own, or that one or more recipients of her eggs having achieved a live birth. Moreover, such a track record makes it far more likely that such an ED will have “good quality eggs”. Furthermore, the fact that an ED readily conceived on her own lessens the likelihood that she herself has tubal or organic infertility. This having been said, the current shortage in the supply of egg donors makes it both impractical and unfeasible, to confine donor recruitment to those women who could fulfill such stringent criteria for qualification.
It is not unheard of for a donor who, at some point after donating eggs, finds herself unable to conceive on her own due to pelvic adhesions or tubal disease, to blame her infertility on complications caused by the prior surgical egg retrieval process. She may even embark upon legal proceedings against the IVF physician and program. It should therefore come as no surprise that it provides a measurable degree of comfort to ED program when a prospective donor is able to provide evidence of having experienced a relatively recent, trouble free spontaneous pregnancy.
Screening of Donors
Genetic Screening: The vast majority of IVF programs in the U.S. follow the recommendations and guidelines of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) for selectively genetic screening of prospective egg donors for conditions such as sickle cell trait or disease, thallasemia, cystic fibrosis and Tay Sachs disease, when medically indicated. Consultation with a geneticist is available through about 90% of programs.
Most recipient couples place a great deal of importance on emotional, physical, ethnic, cultural and religious compatibility with their chosen egg donor. In fact they often will insist that the egg donor be heterosexual.
Psychological Screening: Americans tend to place great emphasis on psychological screening of egg donors. Since most donors are “anonymous,” it is incumbent upon the ED agency or the IVF program to determine the donor’s degree of commitment as well as her motivation for deciding to provide this service. I have on occasions encountered donors who have buckled under the stress and defaulted mid-stream during their cycle of stimulation with gonadotropins. In one case, a donor knowingly stopped administering gonadotropins without informing anyone. She simply awaited cancellation, which was effected when follicles stopped growing and her plasma E2 concentration failed to rise.
Such concerns mandate that assessment of donor motivation and commitment be given appropriate priority. Most recipients in the U.S. tend to be very much influenced by the “character” of the prospective egg donor, believing that a flawed character is likely to be carried over genetically to the offspring. In reality, unlike certain psychoses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorders, character flaws are usually neuroses and are most likely to be determined by environmental factors associated with upbringing. They are unlikely to be genetically transmitted. Nevertheless, egg donors should be subjected to counseling and screening and should be selectively tested by a qualified psychologists. When in doubt, they should be referred to a psychiatrist for more definitive testing. Selective use of tests such as the MMPI, Meyers-Briggs and NEO-Personality Indicator are used to assess for personality disorders. Significant abnormalities, once detected, should lead to the automatic disqualification of such prospective donors.
When it comes to choosing a known egg donor, it is equally important to make sure that she was not coerced into participating. We try to caution recipients who are considering having a close friend or family member serve as their designated egg donor, that in doing so, the potential always exists that the donor might become a permanent and an unwanted participant in the lives of their new family.
Drug Screening: Because of the prevalence of substance abuse in our society, we selectively call for urine and/or serum drug testing of our egg donors.
Screening for STDs: FDA and ASRM guidelines recommend that all egg donors be tested for sexually transmittable diseases before entering into a cycle of IVF. While it is highly improbable that DNA and RNA viruses could be transmitted to an egg or an embryo through sexual intercourse or IVF, women infected with viruses such as hepatitis B, C, HTLV, HIV etc, must be disqualified from participating in IVF with egg donation due to the (abeit remote) possibility of transmission, as well as the potential legal consequences of the egg donation process being blamed for their occurrence.
In addition, evidence of prior or existing infection with Chlamydia or Gonococcus introduces the possibility that the egg donor might have pelvic adhesions or even irreparably damaged fallopian tubes that might have rendered her infertile. As previously stated, such infertility, subsequently detected might be blamed on infection that occurred during the process of egg retrieval, exposing the caregivers to litigation. Even if an egg donor or a recipient who carries a sexually transmittable viral or bacterial agent is willing to waive all rights of legal recourse, a potential risk still exists that a subsequently affected offspring might in later in life sue for wrongful birth.
Screening of the Recipient
Medical Evaluation: while advancing age, beyond 40 years, is indeed associated with an escalating incidence of pregnancy complications, such risks are largely predicable through careful medical assessment prior to pregnancy. The fundamental question namely: “is the woman capable of safely engaging a pregnancy that would culminate in the safe birth of a healthy baby” must be answered in the affirmative, before any infertility treatment is initiated. For this reason, a thorough cardiovascular, hepatorenal, metabolic and anatomical reproductive evaluation must be done prior to initiating IVF in all cases.
Infectious Screening: the need for careful infectious screening for embryo recipients cannot be overemphasized. Aside from tests for debilitating sexually transmittable diseases, there is the important requirement that cervical mucous and semen be free of infection with ureaplasma urealyticum. This organism which rarely causes symptoms frequents the cervical glands of 15-20% of women in the U.S. The introduction of an embryo transfer catheter via a so infected cervix might transmit the organism into an otherwise sterile uterine cavity leading to early implantation failure and/or first trimester miscarriage.
Immunologic Screening: Certain autoimmune and alloimmune disorders (see elsewhere) can be associated with immunologic implantation dysfunction (IID). In order to prevent otherwise avoidable treatment failure, it is advisable to evaluate the recipient for autoimmune IDD and also to test both the recipient and the sperm provider for alloimmune similarities that could compromise implantation.
Disclosure and Consent
Preparation for egg donation requires full disclosure to all participants regarding what each step of the process involves from start to finish, as well as potential medical and psychological risks. This necessitates that significant time be devoted to this task and that there be a willingness to painstakingly address all questions and concerns posed by all parties involved in the process. An important component of full disclosure involves clear interpretation of the medical and psychological components assessed during the evaluation process. All parties should be advised to seek independent legal counsel so as to avoid conflicts of interest that might arise from legal advice given by the same attorney. Appropriate consent forms are then reviewed and signed independently by the donor and the recipient couple.
Most embryo recipients fully expect their chosen donor to yield a large number of mature, good quality eggs, sufficient to provide enough embryos to afford a good chance of pregnancy as well as several for cryopreservation (freezing) and storage. While such expectations ore often met, this is not always the case. Accordingly, to minimize the trauma of unexpected and usually unavoidable disappointment, it is essential that in the process of counseling and of consummating agreements, the respective parties be fully informed that by making best efforts to provide the highest standards of care, the caregivers can only assure optimal intent and performance in keeping with accepted standards of care. No one can ever promise an optimal outcome. All parties should be made aware that no definitive representation can or will be made as to the number or quality of ova and embryos that will or are likely to become available, the number of supernumerary embryos that will be available for cryopreservation or the subsequent outcome of the IVF donor process.
Types of Egg Donation Cycles
Conventional Egg Donation: This is the basic format used for conducting the process of egg donor IVF. It involves synchronizing the menstrual cycles of both the recipient and the donor by placing the donor and the recipient on a birth control pill so that both parties start stimulation with fertility drugs simultaneously. This ultimately allows for precise timing of the fresh embryo transfer. Using this approach, the anticipated egg donation birth rate is >50% per cycle.
CGH-Egg Donation: The recent introduction of Comparative Genomic Hybridization CGH and Staggered IVF (see elsewhere) has the potential to change the manner in which egg donation is likely to be performed in the future. CGH allows full egg/embryo chromosome analysis providing a 70- 80% assurance that the embryo(s) so selected for transfer are highly likely to be “competent” (i.e. capable of producing a healthy baby). Such CGH-embryo selection provides about a >60% chance of a baby per embryo transferred. This is at least double that reported when conventional egg donation is used. As a result, CGH-Egg Donation allows for excellent results when one or two embryos are transferred, virtually eliminating the risk of “high order” multiple pregnancies (triplets or greater). Moreover, since numerical chromosomal irregularities (aneuploidy) are responsible for most miscarriages, the use of CGH also significantly reduces this dreaded complication.
CGH embryo selection of necessity mandates the use of St- IVF. Here the egg donor cycle is divided into two parts. The first involves the egg retrieval, fertilization, embryo biopsy for CGH analysis and embryo cryostorage. The second part involving warming or thawing of the frozen embryo(s) and the subsequent transfer of “competent” embryo(s) to the recipient’s uterus is conducted electively at least several weeks later once the results of CGH testing are available. Since, with St-IVF the egg retrieval and embryo transfer are separated in time, the retrieval can be performed without first having to synchronize the menstrual cycles of the recipient and the egg the donor. In fact, the recipient does not even have to be available when the egg donor is going through cycle. All that is needed is for designated sperm to be available (fresh or frozen) on the day of egg retrieval. This avoids unnecessary travel and inconvenience, and minimizes stress and cost.
Donor Egg Banking: Another imminent advance is the introduction of egg banking. Being able to freeze and bank donor eggs would solve most of these challenges. By using CGH in combination with a new method of egg freezing known as vitrification (ultrarapid freezing), we are now capable of improving the birth rate per warmed/thawed egg by a factor of 7 (from a previous average of 1-4% per egg to about 27%). Through an electronic catalogue, recipients will be able to select and purchase 1-3 CGH-normal eggs from the comfort of their homes. Thereupon, the selective transfer of 1 or 2 embryos derived from such chromosomally normal eggs could achieve a 60% pregnancy rate without the risk of initiating high-order multiple pregnancies in the process. Through this process, the cost, inconvenience and risks associated with “conventional” fresh egg donor cycles would also be reduced significantly.
The fee paid to the egg donor agency per cycle usually ranges between $2,000 and $8,000. This does not include the cost associated with psychological and clinical pre-testing, fertility drugs, and donor insurance, which commonly range between $3,000 and $6,000. The medical service costs of the IVF treatment cycle ranges between $8,000 and $14,000. The donor stipend can range from $2,000 too as high $50,000 depending upon the exotic requirements of the recipient couple as well as supply and demand. Thus the total out of pocket expenses for an egg donor cycle in the United States range between $15,000 and $78,000, putting egg donation outside the financial capability of most couples needing this service.
The growing gap between need and affordability has spawned a number of creative ways to try and make IVF with egg donation more affordable. Here are a few examples:
- Egg banking (see above)
- Egg Donor Sharing, where one comprehensive fee is shared between two recipients and the eggs are then divided between them. The downside is that fewer eggs are available embryos for transfer and/or cryopreservation.
- Egg Bartering, where in the course of conventional IVF, a woman undergoing IVF remits some of her eggs to the clinic (who in turn provides it to a recipient patient) in exchange for a deferment of some or all of the IVF fee. In my opinion, such an arrangement can be fraught with problems. For example, in the event that the woman donating some of her eggs fails to conceive while the recipient of her eggs does, it is very possible that she might suffer emotional despair and even go so far as to seek out her genetic offspring. Such action could be very damaging to both her and the recipient, as well as the child.
- Financial Risk Sharing. Certain IVF programs offer financial risk sharing (FRS) which most recipient couples favor greatly. FRS offers qualifying candidates a refund of fees paid if egg donation is unsuccessful. FRS is designed to spread the risk between the providers, and the recipient couple.
In my next post, I’ll discuss the moral, legal, and ethical considerations of egg donation. With advancing technology, the ramifications of egg donation are branching further into these areas all the time.