Baby Born After 19 Years as an Embryo

Kelly Burke of Virginia is grateful to be a new mom at 45. She gave birth to son Liam James nine months ago, but it’s not her age, these days, that’s the amazing part. What’s noteworthy here is that her baby was the result of a donated embryo—the second oldest cryopreserved human embryo in history, her doctors believe.

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“He’s my little miracle,” Burke, a single mom and research scientist with NASA, told Yahoo! Shine.

Even doctors at the Reproductive Science Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, which oversaw the transfer of the donated embryos, were a bit amazed at the viability of the 19-year-old embryos.

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“We trust the technology of embryo freezing, but we still wondered, after 19 years, how they would do,” Deborah Wachs, the reproductive endocrinologist who did Burke’s procedure, told Yahoo! Shine. “It was very exciting for us.” She added that women reading about Burke’s success should understand that the viability of frozen embryos all depends on the age of the eggs; if they are from a young woman (under 35), there can be up to a 65 percent pregnancy success rate.

Burke didn't start trying to get pregnant until the age of 39, first with a partner and then, after a break, on her own, with donated sperm and artificial insemination procedures. She was passionate about becoming a mom, and said she decided, “I couldn’t wait around anymore for someone to try with.”

That’s when she decided to forge ahead with trying to adopt, and retained an adoption lawyer. Not long into the process, a California colleague contacted the lawyer about an Oregon couple who had decided to donate some unused embryos. They had frozen four of them in 1994 after having leftovers following an IVF procedure, which bore them twins. The embryos were particularly unique, not only because they’d been preserved for so long, but because the eggs had been donated by a younger woman to the Oregon woman, who had been over 40 at the time.

Burke’s attorney encouraged her to consider the rare opportunity, telling her, “This just doesn’t happen that often.”

Despite the fact that there are an estimated 500,000 frozen embryos in the U.S., donated embryos are indeed rare, the result of couples having leftover embryos after doing IVF procedures. Those couples must then decide to keep the extra embryos for later use, discard them, keep them frozen indefinitely to avoid making a decision, donate them to science, or donate them to other people, although that final option is still a rarity.

“What happens a lot, I think, with people who have had successful pregnancies after IVF, is that those embryos that are now frozen take on a little more significance,” Wachs noted. “I just think it becomes very heavy for them.”

Burke jumped at the chance.

Because embryos cannot be sold (although the ethics of that were recently challenged in the New England Journal of Medicine), those that are donated must be “adopted,” with the receivers going through the same adoption procedure they would face if adopting a baby. So Burke quickly put together her adoption portfolio for the Oregon couple, and then endured a five-month wait as they pondered who to ultimately get the embryos.

“A lot of people wanted those embryos, so they had a pretty arduous process to go through,” Burke said, although she admitted the wait, plus endless rounds of personal questions, became frustrating. “I wanted to know what was going to happen, so that if they didn’t pick me I could move on.”

When they finally chose her, the doctors decided it would be best to do the transfer into Burke at the Reproductive Science Center, where the embryos were stored, to avoid possibly damaging them in transport. So Burke flew out from her home in Virginia Beach to have the procedure, after months of doing everything she could do to prepare her body for pregnancy: undergoing acupuncture, downing holistic supplements and taking hormones to thicken her uterine-wall lining.

Doctors were honest with Burke about her chances of the embryo implanting—60 to 65 percent, as the egg donor was young—as well as about how long the embryo had been frozen.

“When I first found out how old they were I was like, what? But I researched it,” Burke said, adding she couldn’t find any evidence that it would lower the embryo’s viability. She added that she most likely dealt with the “science experiment” aspect of her pregnancy well because of her background, although certain ironies—like the fact that the original woman donated her eggs in order to fund her own IVF treatment—were not lost on her. “It’s just crazy. Crazy,” she said.

Because the embryos had been frozen at two days old, as was the norm 19 years ago, doctors thawed them and then cultured them to day 5, which is the standard today. “Amazingly, all four made it to the day-five stage,” Wachs said. She transferred two into Burke, one of them attached, and Liam James was born in November. All told, the new mom estimates the entire procedure cost her less than $20,000, with much of the costs being attorney fees.

Burke said she still hasn’t decided what to do about the two remaining embryos, which are hers for five years and then revert back to the Oregon couple. 

That couple and their 18-year-old twins, as it turns out, will be a part of baby Liam’s life, because both they and Burke agreed that the adoption of the embryos would be an open one. They have yet to meet, but Burke, for now, keeps her son’s biological parents and siblings updated on his growth, and the families have exchanged photos.

Burke, for her part, said that, though it’s uncomfortable, she’s decided to speak out about her experience in order to encourage others. “I hope that this gives hope to others out there,” she said, “because I know what it’s like to desperately want to have a baby and not be able to.”

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