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$10,000 is minimum bet in gamble on frozen eggs

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SANTA ANA, Calif. - Maritza Reynoso wants a baby. At 40 and single, she's not sure when that will happen. But she's not worried, knowing her eggs are frozen in time.

Ten of Reynoso's eggs were stored in liquid nitrogen five years ago, ready to be thawed, fertilized and implanted in her uterus if she has trouble getting pregnant someday. The Irvine, Calif., resident said she's grateful for the "safekeeping."

"I wanted to know I had that cushion," Reynoso said. "Just in case I didn't meet Mr. Right until later."

Low success rates and the lack of long-term data led the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recently to recommend egg freezing only in research trials. Still, at least two clinics in Orange County, Calif., offer the service to women who hope to preserve their fertility.

Reynoso works as a medical assistant at the West Coast Fertility Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., where for $10,000 to $13,000 plus a $500 yearly storage fee, women can keep eggs on ice.

As women age, their eggs decrease in number and quality, a process that quickens around age 37. Pre-emptive freezing is risky - the process can damage eggs, which have a higher moisture content than sperm or embryos and can form ice crystals. The procedure has a 3 percent pregnancy rate per thawed egg and has resulted in fewer than 100 births worldwide, according to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

After seven years of researching and practicing the technique, the West Coast Fertility Center in May announced its first pregnancy from a frozen egg. A 43-year-old Orange County woman with prior infertility is 22 weeks' pregnant with a healthy girl, said medical director Dr. David Diaz. The embryo implanted in the woman was created with an egg donated from another patient.

"We are seeing more and more people who are needing donated eggs," Diaz said. "We see (egg freezing) as a way to break the reproductive logjam."

While frozen sperm and embryos have helped couples get pregnant for decades, egg freezing has yet to reach the same potential, according to the Journal article.

Women take hormone injections to increase egg production. About a dozen eggs are removed from the ovaries, treated with antifreezing protectants and stored in liquid nitrogen. When a woman is ready for pregnancy, the eggs are thawed, fertilized in a petri dish and implanted in her uterus.

Critics say the procedure should not be excessively hyped to women hoping for a baby.

"Egg freezing hasn't been perfected, and the process is also detrimental to egg quality," said Eleanor Nicoll of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "You may not have much of a better chance with your eggs frozen in your early 30s than you would have with your own eggs at 40."

Candidates for egg freezing include women who will have cancer treatments and risk becoming infertile, and those who don't have a partner to donate sperm. Other patients have religious beliefs against freezing, storing and possibly discarding embryos. Early menopause or potential ovarian disorders have also been cited as reasons.

But it's the young, single women who hear their biological clocks ticking who have critics worried.

"These women are not dealing with the disease of infertility. They're trying to set up a lifestyle and use a medical procedure to do that," Nicoll said. "If you're a rich person who has $10,000 that you don't mind gambling on something that is not likely to be successful, go right ahead."

Diaz said he is upfront with his patients about West Coast's success rates. Compared with a 40 percent pregnancy success rate from frozen embryos, one out of four patients who opted for frozen eggs at the clinic became pregnant. The clinic is storing 67 frozen eggs harvested from 13 women who requested the procedure for religious, medical or personal reasons.

"The more cases you do, the better you're going to get at it and the higher the success rates are going to be," Diaz said. "We're just trying to offer an option for couples that could benefit from it."

The procedure is also offered at the Huntington Reproductive Center in Fullerton, Calif.

Doctors at USC announced last month that they had achieved a pregnancy of triplets using a woman's own frozen eggs. The university's study on the viability of frozen eggs could reach a pregnancy success rate of 50 percent or greater, according to Dr. Richard Paulson, director of USC Fertility.

"We're very optimistic that the (egg-freezing) process has reached a stage where it is ready for prime time," Paulson said.

However, Paulson remains cautious.

"Until you take a protocol and it's been done in a bunch of different centers, I think it should be considered experimental," he said. "We could be having beginners' luck."


(c) 2005, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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