This Baby Was Born From a 27-Year-Old Frozen Embryo—Here’s How That Can Happen
Science can do some pretty amazing things—including help a woman become a mom with an embryo that's just a year younger than she is.
Tina Gibson, 28, gave birth to a baby girl she and her husband named Molly in Tennessee last month using a donor embryo that was originally frozen on October 14, 1992. The embryo was thawed 27 years later, on February 10, 2020; and then transferred into Tina's uterus two days later, on February 12. She and her husband, Ben, received the embryo from the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC). "We didn't realize until it made the news that it was kind of a big thing," Tina told Knoxville's WVLT 8.
Molly's implantation and birth broke a world record for the longest time an embryo had been frozen before birth—a total of 27 years, 3 months, and 27 days. The previous record was held by Molly's big sister, Emma, who was frozen as an embryo for 24 years before she was implanted.
Tina also made headlines with Emma's birth back in 2017. She told CNN at the time that she was shocked to learn the embryo was just a year younger than she was. "This embryo and I could have been best friends," she joked, before adding, "I just wanted a baby. I don't care if it's a world record or not."
Tina and Ben tried for years to have children. Ben has cystic fibrosis, a condition that can cause infertility in men, and the couple worried that they would pass the condition on their child. So, they pursued embryo adoption.
Molly and Emma are full genetic siblings, WVLT 8 says. "The fact that we are holding these miracles, it's unbelievable that god would just pour his blessings on us like that. We don't deserve it that's for sure," Tina said.
What is embryo donation, exactly?
When couples go through in-vitro fertilization, they sometimes have extra fertilized eggs (aka embryos) that are frozen and stored for future use, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). Not all of those embryos end up being used.
"Many couples will have extra embryos to freeze after their IVF cycle – the younger a woman is when she goes through IVF, the greater chance that she will have a lot of high quality embryos to freeze," Jenna McCarthy, MD, medical director at Connecticut-based WINFertility, tells Health. "Depending on how many children she wants, she may very well have some left over after her family is complete."
In some situations, a donor embryo can be created from donor sperm and donor eggs specifically for the purpose of donation, ASRM says. And if a couple doesn't plan on using all of their embryos, they can pursue a few routes, according to the National Embryo Donation Center:
- Donate the embryos to research
- Thaw them and let them be destroyed
- Keep them frozen
- Donate them to a couple that is unable to conceive
Freezing embryos—and keeping them frozen—is a popular choice: One study estimates that there are 1 million human embryos stored in the US alone right now.
"Freezing technology is much better and more people have access to IVF who need it," Emily Jungheim, MD, chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Northwestern Medicine, tells Health. "These factors have made having embryos in excess of what is needed for one's own family building more common, thus embryo donation is becoming more common."
This is a thing that's happening more often than many people realize (just not necessarily with 27-year-old embryos). "Embryo adoption is becoming more common and can have very good success rates," Dr. McCarthy says.
How can an embryo stay frozen for 27 years?
Embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen, which is a very effective means of freezing, Dr. Jungheim says. "Once the embryo is frozen, it can be stored for decades because it is held stable by the freezing process," Dr. McCarthy says.
Historically, embryos "were frozen through a slow freezing process in which ice crystals could form and had the potential to damage the embryos," Dr. Jungheim says. But today, most programs use a process called vitrification, where the embryos are cooled quickly "resulting in little to no damage," she says.
Embryos that were frozen using slow free techniques (i.e. older embryos) can still survive the freezing and thawing process, though, Dr. Jungheim says. Once an embryo has been adopted, it's simply thawed and implanted, just like any other embryo used in IVF—which is how the Gibsons were able to have a baby from a 27-year-old embryo.
Worth noting: It's not common for donor embryos to be this old. "It's very unusual," Nina Resetkova, M.D., M.B.A., a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist at Boston IVF, tells Health. "The protocols that were used 27 years ago for embryo freezing are not as good, so the likelihood of an embryo surviving freezing and thawing is small."
If you're interested in pursuing this option for your family, there are plenty of ways to go about this, and several organizations handle embryo donation. "Some fertility clinics have also established embryo donation programs," Dr. Jungheim says. She recommends talking to a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist or consulting the ASRM website for more information on the process and where to find embryos.
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