Local families use frozen embryo adoption to get pregnant

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Getting pregnant can be difficult, and for many couples, that's a heartbreaking reality. But some are finding success with a method that combines conception and adoption. 

Maria and Grant Wilson have a typical sibling rivalry.

"I don't like that we are twins when he annoys me," Marian Wilson said.

They enjoy looking at pictures of themselves growing up and one in particular which shows them long before they were born. Because even though they were conceived 15 years ago, they're only 6 years old. They'll turn 7 years old in a couple of months.

As embryos, they were cryo-preserved for seven years at the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. The embryos are frozen at minus 320 degrees. There are eight tanks, and each one holds up to 6,000 embryos.

When Jeremy and Jessica Wilson were having trouble getting pregnant, they looked at frozen embryo adoption after a friend who also struggled used it and had triplets.

"Science fiction is real," Jeremy Wilson said.

"We were about a year into trying to have a child and realized we needed help and had always talked about adoption," Jessica Wilson said. "This seems like a natural fit for us. IVF seemed very invasive. It was quite costly."

"This is a way for a couple to adopt and still go through the process of pregnancy," Jeremy Wilson added.

Three embryos were transferred, and Jessica Wilson got pregnant with twins on the first try. During in-vitro, doctors fertilize an egg with sperm in a laboratory, then transfer it to the uterus.

The Wilsons went through 40 embryo profiles. They detail things like race, educational background and body build, and they selected a husband and wife from Massachusetts.

"It's kind of weird, because we were literally shopping for embryos, shopping for what human beings you want to pick," Jeremy Wilson said. "We wanted to pick profiles from couples who looked similar to us."

Embryos are thawed out in a number of ways, but can be thawed in a water bath. Doctors then transfer it to the woman, and in as soon as nine days, she'll find out if she's pregnant.

"This is actually a very nice embryo. We're looking to see evenness of the cells. All the cells are the same size." She says, "There is no cost for the donated embryos to the adoptive couples, it's a gift." Donated embryos come from all over the country. 

"Embryos that are donated here are for couples who have completed their family," said Carol Sommerfelt, an embryologist. "They may have gone through a fresh IVF and had a baby, and they may have had a frozen transfer and had another baby, but they still have embryos frozen and have a little bit of a dilemma of what do with those remaining embryos, because they consider them life, as we do here. 

"So, they feel drawn to donate them to other couples who have not been successful, either with IVF or other fertility treatments."

Nine Kentucky couples, including four from the Louisville area, went through the NEDC in Knoxville.

"We started in 2004 with our first transfers," Sommerfelt said. "At that time, we had 20 sets of embryos. We're now well over 1,000 sets of embryos donated."

A bulletin board boasts the center's success -- 620 children born since it opened.

"We have had babies born from embryos frozen for 19 years. The world record is 21 years and that was in England. So as long as they are maintained correctly, they may be good for who knows how long."

The cost is $6,000 to $10,000 for a couple's first attempt to get pregnant, about half that for other tries. Success rate is about 50 percent.

"This was a lot less expensive," Jessica Wilson said. "I don't want to say they're bargain kids. It was a lot less expensive than IVF, just felt natural to us.

"I look at them and had they been born at conception, they'd be in eighth grade, and they're in first grade. It's hard to wrap your head around it some days, and we saw your picture when you were not frozen, and you were six or seven cells, and that's how they were transferred, somehow it worked. I remember we heard their heartbeat at six weeks and three days, and it was pretty cool."

Given that shelf life of the embryos, Sommerfelt says the possibilities really are limitless.

"If you let your mind wander, you can think of all different scenarios," she said. "If they are indeed good indefinitely, a child could possibly give birth to their full sibling." 

The center says it would never do that, but sees embryo adoption as a way to make the most of remaining embryos from IVF.

Couples who donate their embryos decide whether to remain anonymous or have an open adoption where both sides can know each other. Other couples donate their extra embryos to research or have them destroyed.

Jessica Wilson says she knows not everyone agrees with this process.

"They don't have to support it," she said. "They can say it's not natural, but what are these two kids walking around my house? They are living, breathing beings, and I felt them kick from very early on. I've nursed them for two years."

"We don't feel for sure that we are playing God," said Jeffery Keenan, MD of the NEDC. "We are trying to help these embryos reach their full human potential. We all started exactly as these embryos, but maybe not frozen."

NEDC says once the embryos have been transferred, the genetic parents no longer have rights to the child. Mothers get three attempts to become pregnant using donated embryos. 

The Wilsons says if you're struggling with infertility, don't give up hope.

"These embryos are already here," Sommerfelt said. "We need to give them a chance. We're not playing science. We are allowing these embryos to grow to their potential."

Watch the story tonight on WDRB News at 6 and 10 p.m.

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