New tech offered at CT fertility clinic lets women incubate their own IVF embryos inside their bodies

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Doctor and Westport resident Spencer Richlin with INVOCELL, a new way of treating infertility offered at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut.

Doctor and Westport resident Spencer Richlin with INVOCELL, a new way of treating infertility offered at Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut.

Contributed /Dr. Spencer Richlin

For couples wrestling with fertility problems, in vitro fertilization can be a lifesaver, according to Dr. Spencer Richlin.

The Westport resident said he knows that some might find the process — in which an egg is fertilized with sperm and incubated in a lab before being implanted in a uterus — is a little impersonal. But there’s a new technology that allows egg fertilization and early embryo development to take place inside a woman’s body instead of a lab.

It’s called INVOCELL and, though it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration a few years ago, it’s slowly starting to be offered at fertility clinics, including Reproductive Medicine Associates of CT, where Richlin is surgical director and partner.

Richlin said RMA CT, which has offices in Norwalk, Stamford, Danbury and Trumbull, is the first clinic to offer this technology, and it’s so new, he’s yet to use it on any patients. But, he said he thinks it will strike a chord with a certain subset of his patients who wish they could take a more active role in the IVF process.

“For the right patient who wants a different experience than IVF, it’s easier, cheaper, and close to same pregnancy rates,” Richlin said.

However, at least one expert said the last point has yet to be definitively proven.

“It’s just so new. There aren’t a lot of a clinics that have done it hundreds of times each to see what the success rates are,” said Dr. James Toner, associate professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility in Emory University’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Toner agreed that INVOCELL has some obvious benefits. “It’s lower cost,” he said. “It’s also, in theory, more natural.”

In typical IVF, Richlin said, mature eggs are retrieved from a patient’s ovaries, combined with sperm and grown in an incubator for five days, at which point they are transferred to the uterus in hopes that a pregnancy that will develop.

With the INVOCELL method, the egg is combined with sperm and placed in the INVOCELL device, which is a small plastic container that is then placed inside the patient.

“She now is the incubator,” Richlin said. “This allows her to use her body heat and body movement to facilitate egg development.”

Again, the embryo develops for about five days before the device is removed, and the embryo is implanted in a uterus. Though the embryo can be implanted in the uterus of the same woman who incubated it, Richlin and Toner said the technology has a particular appeal for same sex couples, in which one member of the couple can be the incubator and one can be the carrier.

“They both, in a way, have been carriers and that has a psychological appeal,” Toner said.

The other appeal is the price differential. Richlin said prices for both INVOCELL and traditional IVF can vary, but, his ballpark estimate is that INVOCELL costs roughly $7,500 per cycle, whereas the traditional IVF costs $11,000 to $12,000 per cycle.

Richlin said he’s started consulting with patients who might be interested in INVOCELL. He said not everyone is an ideal candidate. For instance, younger people — under 38, preferably — are more likely to be successful. But, he said, he is happy that this new option is available for those seeking to conceive.

“It’s a new thing in our toolbox,” Richlin said.