Belgian doctors have developed a low-cost version of test-tube baby technology for use in developing countries, where sophisticated Western systems are unaffordable for most couples.
The researchers said on Monday their simplified process cost around 200 euros ($260) per cycle of treatment and delivered results that were not much different to those seen with conventional in-vitro fertilization (IVF) program.
The price is just 10 to 15 percent of the current cost of Western-style IVF and suggests infertility care could one day become universally accessible, Elke Klerkx from the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology told a medical meeting.
Around 5 million babies have been born around the world since the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 - but the treatment remains largely the preserve of developed countries because of its high cost.
"Infertility care is probably the most neglected healthcare problem of developing countries, affecting more than 2 million couples according to the WHO (World Health Organization)," Klerkx said.
In order to slash the price, Klerkx and her colleagues used an embryo culture method that removes the need for much of the expensive laboratory equipment found in European or North American IVF clinics.
Results from a study showed similar success rates between the standard and low-cost system - and two-thirds of the top quality embryos from 35 cycles as assessed by an independent expert came from the simplified system.
"Our initial results are proof of principle that a simplified culture system designed for developing countries can offer affordable and successful opportunities for infertility treatment where IVF is the only solution," said Klerkx. "This is a major step towards universal fertility care."
Fertility experts attending the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) annual meeting in London, where her results were presented, said the system could bring IVF to many corners of the world, including much of Africa, where there is a huge unmet need.
But they cautioned that it had, as yet, only been shown to work in a developed world setting, using a laboratory in Belgium, and larger trials in one or more developing country were now needed to test the process fully.
Infertility is a serious problems in some countries in Africa and other resource-poor settings, where infections are a common cause of tubal blockages in women, leading to often high rates of infertility and social isolation.
Many cases of infertility in the developing world are due to infectious diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea or tuberculosis.
Richard Kennedy, general secretary of the International Federation of Fertility Societies, said the Belgian team's work had great potential.
"Infertility is a disease which does not respect national boundaries. Until now it has been unaffordable for many in the developing world," he said in a statement.
ESHRE estimates the prevalence of infertility that lasts for at least 12 months to be around 9 percent worldwide for women aged 20-44.
Klerkx and the Genk team are now working to build a low-cost IVF laboratory that could be a used as a template for use in poorer countries. The cost of setting up a high-quality IVF lab is between 1.5 million and 3 million euros, but she expects the low-cost version to cost less than 300,000 euros.
Construction of the center in Genk is expected to be completed by November this year and it will provide training for clinicians from developing countries. ($1 = 0.7792 euros)