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Eggs On Ice -

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Eggs on ice (30/04/2009)

TRANSCRIPT

NARRATION

She's smart. She's beautiful. And at just 29, Claire Wilkinson is a fighter. 7 months ago she was
diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Claire Wilkinson

I always suspected I would get cancer. There's a strong family history on both sides of the family,
I just didn't think I would get it so young.

Jane Walden

Yes. Her father died of cancer at 46. And his mother had cancer. And ah so high, Claire was at very
high risk of contracting it.

NARRATION

A frantic phone call saw Claire's mother on the next plane out from London to Sydney to be by her
daughter's side.

Jane Walden

She was here on her own and it was a long flight. It was just a desperate situation.

NARRATION

A routine pap smear revealed a 4cm tumour on her cervix which doctors could remove by performing a
radical hysterectomy.

NARRATION

But nothing could have prepared her for the news she was about to receive.

Claire Wilkinson

They removed some lymph nodes around um my womb and unfortunately one, one of them came up
positive.

NARRATION

The cancer had spread. Claire was about to embark on 4 months of intensive chemo and radiotherapy.
She was also faced with the harsh reality that she would never have her own children.

Dr Mark Bowman

The intense local radiation would've killed all of the eggs that she was born with... stopping her
from carrying a pregnancy.

Claire Wilkinson

I've always wanted to have a big family.

Jane Walden

She knew that she was going to have children when she was mid-thirties, but cancer just completely
destroyed all those wishes of hers.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

Unlike men who turn over sperm at a rate of 1000 per second, women are born with all the
reproductive eggs we're ever going to have. And despite starting with around 700 thousand of them,
that number dramatically declines as our biological clock ticks into our 30's.

NARRATION

Unfortunately for Claire time had run out. Her cancer therapy was imminent. But in a bold move, she
decided to preserve some of her eggs in the hope that she could arrange a surrogate pregnancy
further down the track.

Dr Mark Bowman

The standard option for her would've been to potentially have gone through an IVF cycle with a
collection of eggs, fertilizing of those eggs with her partner's sperm and freezing of embryos
because embryo freezing is a well established technology.

NARRATION

But that meant that Claire's partner would have to commit to being the father of her children.

Claire Wilkinson

Unfortunately um I wasn't in the right position in my relationship, to fertilise my eggs. Um I just
had to um make a quick decision. Um I have effectively one week to decide um what was the best
thing for me. And um freezing eggs was, was the best thing.

NARRATION

Unlike embryos, freezing unfertilised eggs has been fraught with complications. Scientists have
struggled for decades to freeze-thaw unfertilised eggs without destroying them in the process.

Mark Henman

An egg contains a lot of water compared to an embryo, and water is the complicating factor when it
comes to freezing. As the water freezes and forms an ice crystal, it can expand and fracture the
membrane. And that's one of the downfalls of freezing.

NARRATION

To overcome this problem, fertility specialists have been working to perfect a new freezing method
called "vitrification".

Mark Henman

In a nut shell I suppose, snap freezing would be what you would call it. It essentially it goes
from a liquid stage to a solid stage without any ice crystal formation.

NARRATION

The process involves a woman undergoing an IVF cycle.

Claire Wilkinson

IVF was tough. It was um hard on the body and hard on the mind.

NARRATION

It's a gruelling schedule of tri-daily hormone injections to stimulate egg production in the
ovaries.

Jane Walden

It was our only ray of hope in a desperate situation. It was her little ray of hope, of positivity.

NARRATION

Regular blood tests and ultrasounds are used to work out the precise time to harvest the eggs.
Under a local anaesthetic, doctors perform the delicate operation of removing the mature eggs from
the ovaries. A needle is inserted into a follicle filled with eggs. As the contents are aspirated,
the follicle shrinks in size.

Mark Henman

They'll come back into the lab, and then we'll start the process of getting the eggs prepared for
vitrification.

NARRATION

Matured eggs are surrounded by a protective layer called the cumulous. This layer needs to be
stripped away using an enzyme - the same enzyme found in sperm which it uses to burrow into the
egg.

Mark Henman

We'll load them onto ah a vitrification device or a little hook in our case. Um and then we'll ah
put a two micro-litre droplet on that hook, touch the hook onto the surface of a very, very cold
metal block, the same temperature as liquid nitrogen - minus hundred and ninety six degrees
Celsius. And that tiny liquid will vitrify instantaneously.

NARRATION

Fortunately for Claire, the scientists were able to retrieve 7 eggs and store them safely in liquid
nitrogen.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

And if she decides she doesn't want them, are there ethical issues with discarding frozen eggs?

Mark Henman

Much fewer ethical issues um with eggs because of course they're not fertilized.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

Yeah.

Mark Henman

And that old question of when does life begin isn't really applicable to an egg.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

Right.

Mark Henman

So, there are much fewer ethical concerns.

Claire Wilkinson

My 7 eggs are stored with 1500 embryos, so I joke with them and say that it's a like the opposite
to a grave yard, it's like a birth yard.

NARRATION

Even though vitrification shows that 90% of the time, unfertilised eggs will survive the thawing
process, there's really no guarantee that they'll fertilise and then translate into a successful
pregnancy.

Dr Mark Bowman

Any one particular embryo might only have a very modest chance of achieving pregnancy. That may
only be between about 10-20%.

NARRATION

But freezing eggs has an even lower success rate. International studies show it's only around 3%.
Now this new vitrification method is hoping to improve that.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

For some women though, even the slightest chance of having their own biological child is worth all
the risk and uncertainty that science throws at them.

Claire Wilkinson

3% is better than 0%. That's how I looked at it.

Dr Edith Weisberg

For Claire, it was obviously worth taking a three percent chance. For another woman, to go through
all that and only have 3 chances out of 100 of having a live baby at the end, may not be
worthwhile.

NARRATION

And it seems miracles do happen for some. This is the first ever baby to be born from egg
vitrification in Australia. At 6 months old, she's a healthy baby girl.

Claire Wilkinson

I was very pleased to find out the baby's just been born and um it's fantastic. It gave me more
hope.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

We've known for years that women are having children later in life, but it's only recently that
fertility experts have noticed a growing trend in women freezing their eggs, purely for social
reasons.

Dr Edith Weisberg

They're not ready to change their life to have children and by the time they are, they're often in
their late thirties when their fertility's started to go down, and also I think the men are not
prepared to commit. They're having a good time, they can't see the point of tying themselves down
with children, so they really don't start wanting to have children till well into their forties.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

So, it begs the question, when is the right time to freeze your eggs?

Dr Mark Bowman

From a purely scientific perspective, it should be from somewhere no later than the mid-thirties.
The irony about social egg freezing is that when women find themselves in a circumstance where they
realize they're unlikely to find themselves a partner, until it's too late, are already in the
situation where their fertility is in active decline.

Claire Wilkinson

It's not quite as easy and rock up and "I'll just take my eggs out", it's a hard process to go
through.

NARRATION

And it doesn't come cheap. It costs around $11,000 plus ongoing storage fees. And as if things
weren't tough enough, Claire has been dealt another blow.

Claire Wilkinson

Another blow, thyroid cancer. Yes, completely unrelated to the first cervical cancer, so I was a
bit fed up with the world but I've just had surgery and I have a scar across my neck and they've
removed my thyroid and all clear now.

Jane Walden

The cancer's gone. So we're just looking forward to the day when I can be a grandmother (laughs)

Claire Wilkinson

On one hand I'm very lucky, one the other hand I'm very unlucky. I was diagnosed with two forms of
cancer at the age of 29, but on the other hand I'm very lucky because it's made me realise how
fantastic life can be and there's so much to live for.

Dr Maryanne Demasi

Here's to good health - cheers