What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “test tube baby”? For some, it’s the idea of a baby being conceived and growing in test tubes.
But, is this really the case? We have prepared this article to help you understand what is a test tube baby, how the name came about, the history behind it, and the advancements that have been made over the past few decades.
What is a Test Tube Baby?
Test tube baby is the term used to describe a baby who has been conceived via IVF (in vitro fertilization). Today, the term ‘IVF baby” is used more often than “test tube baby”, as it is a more accurate description of the process that happens in order for the baby to be conceived. Hence when someone mentions IVF or test tube baby, they are actually referring to the same thing.
Many decades ago, the term test tube baby was originally used to refer to a baby conceived via artificial insemination rather than IVF. Artificial insemination is a method to help increase the chances of getting pregnant that involves collecting sperm from the male partner and directly placing the sperm into the female reproductive tract.
As advancements in fertility treatments were made and IVF was then introduced, the term test tube baby was then used to refer to babies conceived via IVF instead.
What is IVF? IVF is a type of assisted reproductive technology that is used to help couples affected by infertility, to successfully have a baby. It includes a series of steps that involves:
- Stimulating the eggs in a woman’s ovaries to grow.
- Collecting the matured eggs out from the ovaries, and fertilizing them with sperm to form embryos (the earliest form of a baby).
- Transferring the embryo back into the mother’s womb, and the pregnancy process happens naturally.
Are IVF babies really conceived in test tubes?
Contrary to popular belief, IVF babies are not conceived in test tubes. During the IVF process, eggs (from the female partner) and sperm (from the male partner) are actually fertilized on a petri dish in specialized laboratories, instead of test tubes. After developing for 3 - 6 days, the embryo is then transferred back into the mother’s womb.
Hence the idea of a baby growing into a test tube is perhaps a misrepresentation of what actually happens in real life. The only process that takes place outside the mother’s body is the fertilization and early embryo development (3 - 6 days). After that, the baby grows naturally in the mother’s womb, just like all of us.
A brief history of IVF
The earliest use of the term “test tube baby” was in 1934. During that year, Dr Hermann Rohleder wrote a book titled ‘Test Tube Babies: A History of the Artificial Impregnation of Human Beings’. Back then, the term “test tube baby” was used to refer to artificial insemination instead of IVF.
In November 1977, Leslie and John Brown agreed to undergo IVF, which was still an experimental procedure back then. For 9 years, Leslie and John Brown were trying to have a baby, but their attempts were unsuccessful. They had difficulty having a baby as Leslie Brown was diagnosed with blocked fallopian tubes.
Back then, there were no fertility treatments available for a woman with blocked fallopian tubes to get pregnant. The IVF procedure that the both of them underwent were performed by Dr Robert Edwards, a British gynaecologist, and Dr Patrick Steptoe who was a scientist from England.
Then in 1978, a worldwide breakthrough happened - the first IVF baby, Louise Joy Brown was born. It was a historical moment not just for her parents Leslie and John, but also for the entire world in what was hailed as a medical miracle, offering new hope for couples around the world who were struggling with infertility.
Advancements in IVF over the past 40 years
Over the past 4 decades, there have been many new developments in the field of IVF. Continuous improvements and advances in this field have helped improve the IVF success rates tremendously. In 1982 to 1983, the success rates for IVF were only approximately 23.5 - 30.0%. Today, fertility clinics here in Malaysia are able to demonstrate IVF success rates of up to 70 - 80%.
The IVF procedure has evolved throughout the years too. For example, IVF patients previously were required to be hospitalized most of the time when undergoing an IVF cycle. This was done to monitor and measure their hormone levels.
Today, almost the entire procedure is done within a daycare setting, meaning couples would not be required to stay overnight in the hospitals or clinics. This makes it easier for working couples to commit time to start an IVF procedure.
The number of follow up appointments with fertility doctors has also been reduced. Technology has also enabled the healthcare team from fertility centres to check on your progress via phone calls or text messages in order to guide you on what to do next, without you having to be physically present at the clinic each time. This saves time, and makes the IVF procedure more accessible for modern working couples.
The egg retrieval (also known as the OPU procedure) has changed over the years too. In the early days, the eggs were extracted via laparoscopy procedures. The egg retrieval procedure today uses a needle guided by an ultrasound to retrieve the eggs. This approach is much simpler to perform, much less invasive, and provides a much quicker recovery time. Most women who undergo the OPU procedure today experience minimal discomfort and would be back on their feet within an hour or two after the procedure.
Over the years, the embryo development process in IVF laboratories have also been improved. This has resulted in the increase of IVF success rates mentioned above. Today, more advanced systems are available, such as time lapse embryo monitoring systems and AI-enhanced embryo selection systems. This allows embryologists to select the embryos with the highest chance of being successfully implanted onto the mother’s womb in order to maximise the pregnancy rates for couples.
Improvements in embryo culture have also allowed fertility doctors to minimise the risk of multiple gestation - a pregnancy with more than 1 baby, by minimising the number of embryos transferred into the womb, without sacrificing much of the success rates.
There are many more high technologies available in the IVF field such as PGT-A or also known as PGS. PGT-A stands for Preimplantation Genetic Testing for Aneuploidies, is a technology in IVF that has a lot of benefits such as increasing the implantation rate, allowing selection of normal embryo transfer and it also reduces the miscarriage rate.
Although the IVF procedure has improved by leaps and bounds throughout the years, medical researchers and scientists are still continuously learning, developing and working on new methods, tests and technologies to improve the success rates of IVF and help couples achieve their dream in building a family.
If you have been affected by blocked fallopian tubes, IVF offers a glimmer of hope for you and your partner to have a baby. Do reach out to a fertility doctor near you to understand more about your condition and your options moving forward.