In an apparent world-first, both women in a same-sex couple have a biological connection to their son after each carried the same embryo during different phases of an in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempt. As strange as it may sound, achieving this unique family dynamic required only a slight modification to an established IVF process and led to a healthy, normal birth.
The proud mothers are Ashleigh and Bliss Coulter, a married couple from northern Texas. The medical experts behind the breakthrough are husband-and-wife fertility doctors Kathy and Kevin Doody of the CARE Fertility clinic. Speaking to ABC affiliate WFAA, the Coulters explained that even though they planned to use eggs harvested from Bliss and to implant the fertilized embryos into Ashleigh, they still hoped to find a way for Bliss to feel she had helped carry the baby.
Thankfully for them, a special procedure that could make this desire a reality was approved by the FDA in 2015. It had simply never been used for this purpose before. Known as “effortless IVF”, the procedure involves retrieving mature egg follicles and placing them inside a small, flexible device – the INVOcell, developed by the medical device company INVO Biosciences – alongside the father/donor sperm. The INVOcell is then placed inside the vagina of the mother-to-be for several days, during which time the embryo will hopefully form and begin developing within. The device is then extracted, and the embryo is transferred to the uterus.
In traditional IVF, eggs harvested from either the mother or a donor (then called 'reciprocal' IVF) are mixed with sperm and incubated in a laboratory environment carefully designed to mimic the conditions inside the fallopian tube, where fertilization and the first few days of pre-implantation development would naturally occur. Effortless IVF works off the principle that the temperature, pH, and gas concentrations necessary for stable incubation are also present in the vagina, and thus costly, complex laboratory equipment is not needed. In a pre-approval trial (which was conducted at CARE Fertility), the effortless INVOcell system led to pregnancy rates equivalent to those of standard IVF at about half the cost per cycle.
Currently, the expenses associated with one round of IVF runs $16,000 to $20,000. whereas effortless IVF costs about $8,000.
When Bliss and Ashleigh came in for reproductive assistance, the Drs Kathy and Kevin Doody saw no risk in carrying out the INVOcell incubation phase inside Bliss before her embryo was placed in Ashleigh.
“[It was like] passing the baton, like it's a relay race," Dr Kathy Doody told WFAA. “Nobody really knew it was possible—but it worked magnificently.”
The Coulters are now the only family to have completed reciprocal effortless IVF.
"She got to carry him for five days and was a big part of the fertilization, and then I carried him for nine months," added Ashleigh. "So that made it really special for the both of us—that we were both involved. She got to be a part of it, and I got to be a part of it."