Are IVF Babies More Likely to Develop Childhood Cancers?

For couples struggling with infertility, reproductive technologies such as IVF (in vitro fertilisation) are often the last viable option to create a biologically-related child. However, while infertility treatment options are improving, reproductive methods such as IVF remain astronomically expensive, as well as physically and emotionally draining.

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While many couples choose to shoulder these burdens for the chance to conceive, the assisted reproductive technologies sector has recently been dealt another blow that may have would-be parents steering clear of IVF for good.

What the Study Shows

A major study conducted on more than 1.6 million children in Norway found that children born via IVF had a 67% increased risk of developing leukaemia than their naturally conceived peers. The analysis also found that IVF babies had more than triple the risk of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when measured against natural births.

Although these findings can’t be attributed to assisted reproductive technology alone, lead researcher and author Dr. Marte Reigstad explained, “…some childhood cancers, such as leukaemia, appear early in childhood… [thus] factors related to early embryonic development or intrauterine environment may play a role.”

A second recent study found that reproductive technologies may also increase the risk of developmental delays in childhood. Analysing a sample of Massachusetts children enrolled in an Early Intervention program for babies and toddlers with disabilities, researchers found that ART-children were approximately 27% more likely to be referred to E-I programs than children conceived naturally.

No Need to Panic

Despite these borderline-significant research results, lead author Dr. Hafsatou Diop of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health stated, “while there is an increased risk, we don’t necessarily think that it is enough to influence one’s decision…to proceed with ART.”

Dr. Reigstad also urged would-be parents not to boycott assisted reproductive technologies at this stage. She was quick to highlight that the risk of childhood cancer, inclusive of her study, is still extremely low. “For example,” she explained, “in Norway, the risk of being diagnosed with leukemia within the first 1- years of life is 0.5 in 1000. A risk increase of such magnitude as found in our study would amount to a risk of 0.8 in 1000. So for children conceived by assisted reproductive technology, there is still only a very small chance.”

It should also be noted that neither study can entirely account for extraneous variables. For example, there are numerous reasons why IVF babies may be at higher risk for certain cancers. Mothers who conceive via assisted reproductive technologies are often older and existing studies have already established a link between maternal age and childhood cancers.

Others suggest that genetic traits could drastically influence results, such as the factors that caused the initial parental infertility.

While this new research certainly merits further study and continued observation (especially for readers considering IVF), a number of prominent figures in reproductive and oncological research insist that these findings should NOT impact upon a couple’s decisions to undergo assisted reproductive treatments until a more significant link is established.

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