NEW YORK – Avery Lee Kennedy isn't just a cute four-month-old. She may be the embodiment of a new avenue in fertility treatments.
Avery was conceived using a frozen donor egg from a bank, a fledgling approach to helping infertile couples that lessens some of the disadvantages of using fresh donated ovum — such as inconvenience, emotional turmoil and availability.
"In five years nobody is going to think anything about this (using frozen donor eggs)," said Wendy Kennedy, Avery's mom. "It will become the norm."
Two donor agencies sell frozen eggs in the United States and at least one other may enter the arena.
For now, the process is rare. Avery may be the first child born in the United States from a frozen donor egg although that's impossible to verify.
Typically donor egg pregnancies are achieved by using fresh eggs harvested from a donor which are fertilized and implanted in another woman.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says egg freezing is still an experimental technology; few doctors know how to freeze and thaw eggs properly. One doctor estimates only 200 children worldwide have been born from frozen eggs.
Egg freezing has been spotlighted recently because it has been promoted to young women as a way to save their eggs for use later in life. But some doctors say it's inappropriate to market an experimental procedure as biological insurance.
There are no reliable statistics of the success of having a baby using frozen eggs, said Dr. Marc A. Fritz, the chairman of the practice committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The odds of having a baby using fresh donor eggs were 51 percent in 2003, the last year for which data are available from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Using fresh donor eggs has its own challenges. It requires that the menstrual cycles of the donor and recipient be synchronized using hormones, so finding a mutually convenient time can be a chore, and a donor may either not produce eggs or change her mind mid-cycle.
Demand for egg donors has increased as women wait longer to start their families. Ova quality drops dramatically after age 35 and is a chief cause of infertility.
Frozen eggs donor would eliminate such problems, experts said.
Luci, who requested her last name not be used, opted to try frozen eggs for her second pregnancy after one donor she selected couldn't be found and another backed out. The 50-year old environmental planner's first child was born using a donated embryo.
"The whole experience is so emotionally loaded," said Luci. "Frozen eggs seemed like a safer choice."
The frozen eggs Luci purchased produced viable embryos, but she couldn't sustain a pregnancy.
Kennedy said she opted to use frozen eggs to avoid having to coordinate with a donor's schedule. She also was troubled by the thought of having leftover embryos.
A live donor can produce as many as many as 20 eggs, but depending on the recipient's age and health guidelines say no more than five embryos should be implanted. Kennedy only purchased seven eggs. Five survived thawing and were then fertilized with her husband's sperm, leading to three embryos that were implanted.
"There was the moral dilemma about what to do with them (leftover embryos) and then there was thought that maybe she (the donor) wouldn't produce any eggs," said Kennedy, a 41-year old nurse in Lexington, Ky.
Kennedy bought her eggs from Cryo Eggs International in Phoenix. Diana Thomas, who started the bank nearly two years ago, said another client is pregnant with twins from frozen ovum. Thomas has been running a traditional egg donation agency for ten years.
Using frozen eggs cuts waiting time from the process since the donor's portion of the process is done, said Thomas. Plus, the eggs can be shipped anywhere, eliminating travel costs that can occur when the donor and recipient don't live in the same vicinity.
"You can start whenever you want with frozen eggs," said Sheilah Gooding, a 31-year old donor.
Clients have a 40 percent chance of becoming pregnant using donor eggs, Thomas said, basing the prediction on results of a doctor that serves as her consultant.
Thomas conceded many physicians still aren't comfortable using frozen donor eggs.
"It is just a matter of doctors getting familiar," said Thomas, whose three children were born using donor eggs.
Fred Rosenmund started The Donor Egg Bank last year after he and his wife experienced fertility problems. The bank has frozen eggs from 14 donors, said Dr. John Jain, a professor at University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine and consultant to the bank.
Jain says using frozen eggs is cheaper for recipients because a donor's roughly 18 to 20 ovum are split into two batches spreading out the associated costs between two recipients.
Recipients pay $18,000 for about 8 frozen eggs and, after paying for drugs and implantation, their total costs go up to about $20,000 in Los Angeles. If none of the eggs survive the thaw, the recipient gets additional eggs for free.
A fresh donor cycle would cost around $30,000. A cycle's price varies around the country depending on fees paid to doctors and donors. The Donor Egg Bank pays donors $7,000.
Starting a frozen egg bank is risky because donors' fees and medical expenses must be paid upfront even though their eggs may never sell, one reason The Donor Source International hasn't started an egg bank, said CEO Steve Masler. It is being considered, he added, but said he still isn't sure about the technology's reliability.
Jain said USC has been conducting an experiment where researchers freeze a woman's own eggs then thaw, fertilize and implant them. Fifty percent of the 20 women in the study have an ongoing pregnancy.
"That's the same as the national birth rate using a fresh donor," Jain said.