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.
“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.
“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.