Two babies were born in the US who were frozen as embryos for 30 years
According to the National Embryo Donor Center, Lydia and Timothy Ridgway were born on October 31 after what is possibly the longest embryo freeze period to ever result in a live birth. CNN.
The previous known record holder was Molly Gibson, born in 2020 from an embryo that was frozen almost 27 years ago. Molly took the championship from her sister Emma, who was born from an embryo frozen for 24 years.
It is possible that an older frozen embryo was used somewhere, although the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks success rates and reproductive technology data, they do not track how long embryos have been frozen. But there is no evidence that an older embryo resulted in a live birth.
"There's something overwhelming about it," Philip Ridgway said as he and his wife cradled their newborns on their laps at their home in Portland, Oregon. “I was 5 years old when God gave life to Lydia and Timothy, and since then he has kept this life.”
“In a sense, they are our oldest children, although they are the smallest,” Ridgway added. The family has four more children aged 8, 6, 3 and almost 2 years old, none of them were conceived through IVF or donors.
The embryos were created for an anonymous married couple via in vitro fertilization. The husband was in his early 50s and they used a 34 year old egg donor.
The embryos were frozen on April 22, 1992.
For almost three decades, they were stored on tiny straws in liquid nitrogen at almost 200 degrees below zero in a device much like a propane tank.
The embryos were stored in a West Coast fertility lab until 2007, when the couple who created them donated the embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the hope that another couple could use them. Five embryos were transferred overnight to specially equipped tanks in Knoxville, said Dr. John Gordon, the family's physician.
“We never thought about the exact number of children we wanted to have,” Philip said. “We always thought that we would have as much as God wants to give, and … when we heard about the use of embryos, we thought that this is what we would like to do.”
Understanding Embryo Donation
The medical name for the process the Ridgeways went through is embryo donation.
When people go through IVF, they may produce more embryos than they use. Additional embryos can be cryopreserved for future use, donated for research or teaching to advance the science of reproductive medicine, or donated to people who would like to have children.
As with any other human tissue donation, embryos must meet certain US Food and Drug Administration (CDC) requirements, including screening for certain infectious diseases.
"Adoption of embryos is not a legal 'adoption' at all, at least not in the sense of traditional adoption that occurs after birth," the National Embryo Donation Center said in a statement. “However, this term allows all parties to conceptualize the process and possible reality of raising a genetically unrelated child.”
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine states, "The use of the term 'adoption' to embryos is inaccurate, misleading, and may burden recipients and should be avoided."
Many people colloquially refer to the donation process as “embryo adoption,” but adoption and donation are not the same thing, says Dr. Segal Klipstein, a Chicago-based fertility specialist and chairman of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
“Adoption is about living children,” Clipstein said. "It's a legal process that creates relationships between parents and children that didn't exist before."
According to her, embryo donation is a medical procedure. “This is the way we take embryos from one couple or one person and then transfer them to another person to create families,” she says.
The phrase "adoption" has become the subject of a broader cultural debate, used predominantly by members of religious communities with conservative views. The National Embryo Donation Center is a private Christian organization. It requires recipients to pass a "family assessment" and states that "couples must consist of a genetic male and genetic female who have been married for at least 3 years." The center says he has helped give birth to more than 1260 babies from donor embryos.
Klipshtein says using donated embryos can often be cost-effective for people who need help with infertility because it reduces the cost of finding and storing donor sperm and eggs. "They don't get a genetic link to children," she said, "but in most cases they have a much less expensive reproductive option than even in vitro fertilization."
"We only wanted the ones that waited the longest"
For the Ridgways, starting a family has always been part of a larger calling.
“We weren't looking to get the longest-frozen embryos in the world,” said Philip Ridgway. “We just wanted the ones that waited the longest.”
When looking for donors, the couple specifically asked the donation center for a category called "special attention", meaning that for whatever reason it was difficult to find recipients for these embryos.
“Going into it, we knew that we could trust God with everything He had planned, and that their age really didn't matter. It was just a matter of whether it was in God's plans," Rachel Ridgway said.
To select their embryos, they looked through the donor database. It does not state how long the embryos were frozen, but it does list donor characteristics such as ethnicity, age, height, weight, genetic and medical history, education, occupation, favorite movies and music. Some of the files contain photographs of parents and their children, if they have any.
The couple assumed that those on the list with earlier donor numbers were at the center the longest and tried to narrow their choices down to those profiles.
Risks of multipregnancy
Southeast Fertility, which is partnering with the National Embryo Donation Center, thawed the embryos on February 28. Of the five thawed embryos, two were not viable. According to experts, when frozen embryos are thawed, the survival rate is about 80%.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the CDC recommend transferring one embryo at a time because transferring more increases the chance of multiple pregnancies, potentially increasing the risk to both mother and baby. Twin babies are more likely to be born prematurely, they develop cerebral palsy, autism, which leads to stillbirth.
Rachel recalls how Gordon handed her a photo of three embryos and recommended that only two be transferred, telling her that "three can cause problems during pregnancy." But she said that she had no doubt that they would plant all three of them.
She remembers shedding tears and saying, “You just showed me a picture of my three children. I must have them all."
Three embryos were transferred to Rachel on March 2, 29 years and 10 months after they were frozen. Two transplants were successful. Studies have shown that between 25% and 40% of frozen embryo transfers result in a live birth.
Like Rip Van Winkle
Embryos can be frozen almost indefinitely, experts say.
“If you freeze at almost 200 degrees below zero, I mean that biological processes slow down to almost zero. So maybe the difference between freezing a week, a month, a year, a decade, two decades is not a big deal,” Gordon said.
Dr. Jim Toner, an Atlanta fertility specialist, compares this to an old story: “It seems that a sperm, egg, or embryo stored in liquid nitrogen never experiences time. It's like Rip Van Winkle. He just woke up 30 years later and never knew he was dreaming."
"Rip Van Winkle" is an 1819 fantasy short story by American writer Washington Irving. The protagonist is Rip van Winkle, a resident of a village near New York, who slept for 20 years in the Catskills and descended from there when all his friends died. This character has become a symbol of a person behind the times who has slept half his life.
The age of the embryo should not affect the health of the child. Much more important is the age of the woman who donated the egg, which entered the embryo.
“If this patient was 25 years old, then yes, most likely her embryos will survive,” said Dr. Zaher Meri, a fertility expert at the Fertility Rejuvenation Center in New York. "It's all about the egg, the embryo, and the timing of the egg retrieval."
The family says they wanted their other children to be involved throughout the process, so they explained everything to them as they went through the steps.
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“They were excited and happy with every step we took along the way. They love their brothers and sisters, play together and look forward to when they find out if God has given them two boys, two girls or a brother and sister,” said Philip Ridgway.
Lydia was born weighing 2 kg, and Timothy - 200.
“They were big kids,” Rachel Ridgway said. “This is truly God's grace, because He has supported us every step of the way.”
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