Christia Murdaugh sounds like a typically proud mother when she talks about her little girl Sydney Grace-Louise. "She loves school. She loves to sing. She loves to run and play." But Sydney is hardly your typical 4-year-old. And Christia, 33, is only slightly exaggerating when she calls Sydney her "miracle baby."
That's because when Sydney was born on May 8, 1998, she made medical history as the first child in the U.S. born from her mother's frozen egg. While thousands of children had already been produced from frozen embryos, only one other child in the U.S. had been born from the far more delicate frozen egg, and that egg had come from a donor.
Since then, roughly 40 more babies around the world have been born from frozen eggs, raising hope that what has long been considered the Holy Grail of fertility research might someday become a real alternative for women who want to get pregnant after their most fertile years have passed. Unlike embryo freezing, egg freezing doesn't require that women choose the baby's father years in advance.
Now a Los Angeles clinic wants to bring that hope one step closer to reality by opening the first for-profit egg-freezing operation in the country. "It's like an insurance policy," says Dr. Thomas Kim, medical director of the CHA Fertility Center, which wants to start freezing the eggs of women ages 35 and younger beginning this fall for about $8,000. "If they are willing to do it, we are happy to give them the service."
But the center's ambitious plans are sparking a fierce debate among fertility researchers. Is egg banking a godsend for anxious women or a recipe for heartbreak and failure? Kim claims he has the medical results to justify egg banking, and he has several healthy babies to prove it. Critics insist that it will be years before egg freezing will be ready for prime time. "It's a shot in the dark," says Dr. Richard Paulson, chief of reproductive endocrinology and fertility at the University of Southern California's School of Medicine.
With success rates for live births from frozen eggs ranging wildly (anywhere from 1% to 20%, vs. the 30% to 50% rates for in vitro fertilization using both fresh eggs and sperm), it's not hard to see Paulson's point. Even the kindest critics say women would be wiser to wait until more research is done before laying down the cash and taking the powerful fertility drugs needed to retrieve the eggs in the first place. "As a clinician, you so desperately want to help," says Dr. Thomas Toth, a reproductive endocrinologist at Harvard Medical School, "but first we need to make sure it's safe."
The problem with freezing and thawing unfertilized eggs is that it's notoriously hard to do without destroying the eggs in the process. A human egg is a single, liquid-filled cell that is extremely sensitive to temperature changes; ice crystals can easily rupture cell walls, and the solutions used to preserve the egg sometimes wind up destroying it instead. Also, the egg's chromosomes are in a particularly exposed state. If the meiotic spindle--which holds the chromosomes together and pulls them apart as the egg develops--breaks down, as it tends to do when the egg is frozen and later defrosted, then nothing can be done to save it.