Scandal of the risky rip-off IVF ‘add-ons’

Couples desperate for a baby are being sold pricey and possibly unsafe IVF ‘add-ons’ with no warning they may not work, a study has found.

An investigation into 87 fertility clinics in the UK found two thirds offered a technique called ‘time-lapse imaging’, which costs up to £795. This is despite a fertility regulator warning there is insufficient evidence it improves the chances of having a baby.

Another procedure called ‘assisted hatching’ was used by more than a quarter of clinics, costing up to £600. It is claimed the technique, using lasers or acid, helps an embryo to ‘hatch’ out of a protective layer of proteins so it can implant itself in the lining of the uterus.

But this add-on could cause damage to the embryo and there is no evidence it improves pregnancy rates. No clinic looked at by researchers gave any information on its risks.

Neither were there any warnings found on clinics’ websites for pre-implantation genetic testing (PGT) to look for abnormal embryos.

Couples desperate for a baby are being sold pricey and possibly unsafe IVF 'add-ons' with no warning they may not work, a study has found

Couples desperate for a baby are being sold pricey and possibly unsafe IVF ‘add-ons’ with no warning they may not work, a study has found

Despite its price tag of up to £3,295, there is no evidence that this treatment improves success rates, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) regulator.

It also involves removing a cell from an embryo, which may damage it and prevent it from successfully developing in the womb.

The research looking at clinics was carried out in May, and prices, which are not always straightforward as they are often included in IVF packages, may have changed since. But the Competition and Markets Authority has recently published draft guidance that cracks down on possible ‘mis-selling of services’ in the industry. The guidelines, which are being consulted on until March, warn clinics they must clearly state the evidence behind their treatments.

Joyce Harper, senior author of the study and professor of reproductive science at University College London, said: ‘The problem with these add-on treatments is they are being targeted at vulnerable people who are trying to start a family. Clinics need to be honest with patients when there is no evidence the treatments work.’

Sarah Norcross, director of fertility charity Progress Educational Trust (PET), said: ‘While these treatments may not harm patients physically, they hurt them financially, and may compromise their ability to pay for another round of IVF if their treatment is unsuccessful.’

An investigation into 87 fertility clinics in the UK found two thirds offered a technique called 'time-lapse imaging', which costs up to £795. This is despite a fertility regulator warning there is insufficient evidence it improves the chances of having a baby

An investigation into 87 fertility clinics in the UK found two thirds offered a technique called ‘time-lapse imaging’, which costs up to £795. This is despite a fertility regulator warning there is insufficient evidence it improves the chances of having a baby

The study, published in the journal Reproductive BioMedicine Online, searched for fertility clinics across the UK offering three particular add-on treatments.

All three relate to embryos created for those who cannot conceive naturally by fertilising an egg with sperm, then placing it in the womb. Researchers found 67 per cent of clinics offered time-lapse imaging, which enables constant non-invasive monitoring of an embryo’s development.

This is amber in the HFEA’s traffic light rating system for add-on treatments sold with IVF, meaning there is conflicting evidence on whether it improves the chances of having a baby. 

Almost half of clinics offered pre-implantation genetic testing for aneuploidy (PGT-A), which checks for abnormalities in the number of chromosomes within an embryo but is different from PGT used to prevent parents passing on inherited conditions such as cystic fibrosis. The regulator gives this a red rating, as there is no evidence it boosts birth rates – though 15 clinics were found to claim it improved pregnancy rates.

The technique can lead to embryos being discarded even though they would have led to a perfectly healthy pregnancy, the HFEA warns.

Assisted hatching was offered by 28 per cent of clinics, despite its red rating. A spokesman for the HFEA said the regulator was ‘concerned’ too many patients are being offered unproven treatment.

She added: ‘The majority of patients self-fund their fertility treatment in the UK, and it is vital that they receive the right information at the right time and that clinic practices are fair under consumer law.’ The Mail has uncovered previous evidence of bad practice in IVF clinics, such as misleading success rates being presented to women who are considering freezing their eggs.

The industry has also been accused of exploiting women by offering them free treatment if they donate their eggs to others.

‘It preys on guilt when we are in an emotional state’ 

Coming round from the anaesthetic, after having her eggs harvested for IVF, Hannah Vaughan Jones was first asked about add-on treatments.

Woozy and vulnerable, she agreed to pay for extra interventions, fearing she would blame herself if she did not try everything. Now the 39-year-old feels she was exploited.

The CNN broadcaster and husband, BBC news presenter Lewis Vaughan Jones, spent £80,000 on 15 gruelling rounds of fertility treatment.

When they finally conceived son Sonny, now one, it was with no add-on treatments, but they previously opted for several of them over five years.

Mrs Vaughan Jones said: ‘I feel sick that I was sold these treatments when I was hugely hormonal and emotional.

Coming round from the anaesthetic, after having her eggs harvested for IVF, Hannah Vaughan Jones was first asked about add-on treatments. Pictured with husband Lewis

Coming round from the anaesthetic, after having her eggs harvested for IVF, Hannah Vaughan Jones was first asked about add-on treatments. Pictured with husband Lewis 

‘The clinics would come to us offering the add-ons, which always seemed to cost around £500. When you are presented with something you are told may give you the edge in getting pregnant, you feel duty-bound to say yes.’

The news anchor began trying for a child in 2014, before discovering she had a misshapen womb, and her husband had a fertility issue.

The couple, who live in south-west London, spent their life savings on fertility treatment including add-ons. One of these was an ‘endometrial scratch’, in which the lining of the womb is scratched to apparently release chemicals that make it more receptive to an embryo.

‘I cried every time I had that done, from the intense pain,’ Mrs Vaughan Jones said.

‘When we finally conceived, the clinic did not mention any add-ons because we told them not to dare offer us anything like that. But I worry other women at the start of the process may feel under pressure to hand over huge sums of money or undergo unnecessary procedures.’

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