For years, egg freezing was primarily an experimental approach to preserving the fertility of cancer patients before undergoing chemotherapy. Fast-forward to 2017, and tech companies like Facebook and Apple are offering egg freezing as a standard workplace health benefit. Why the sudden shift?

University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine professor, medical researcher, and director of the Fertility Preservation Program of Pittsburgh—Kyle Orwig, PhD—navigates the changing landscape of fertility preservation, including egg freezing, through his research.

Social Egg Freezing

Elective, or social, egg freezing gives women the opportunity to preserve their fertility and have healthy babies when they are academically, professionally, and financially ready. “As soon as we began freezing eggs for cancer patients, young professional women who realized that their biological clocks were ticking began asking for elective egg freezing,” Dr. Orwig notes.

The average age of mothers is on the rise as women and men increasingly choose to start their families later in life. For many, this decision is often rooted in the desire to be in a better position to raise a family. However, with the decision to delay starting a family comes the increased risk of age-related infertility and birth defects. This is where Dr. Orwig’s expertise comes in. “Preserving fertility by freezing eggs or embryos when couples, or even individuals, are young provides some safeguards and may expand fertility options later in life.”

Egg vs. Embryo Freezing

It’s important to first note that egg freezing is different from embryo freezing; the latter requires sperm from a partner or donor at the time of freezing. Fertilization occurs in a petri dish and the resulting embryos can either be transferred immediately into the mother’s uterus to achieve a pregnancy or frozen for future use.

Egg freezing on the other hand, does not require sperm—only a woman’s egg. This gives a woman the autonomy to preserve her fertility and start a family at a time and with a partner of her choosing.

Dr. Orwig explains the misconceptions about egg freezing as compared to embryo freezing, since the two have not always been seen as equivalent alternatives. “In the past, embryo freezing was preferred over egg freezing because it was thought that embryos thawed better than eggs and therefore pregnancy rates were higher. However, recent data suggests…that pregnancy rates from eggs that survive freezing and thawing are similar to pregnancy rates from embryos that survive freezing and thawing.”

Women seem to be the focus audience of fertility preservation, but men are not without their own fertility-related concerns. “[Since] men produce sperm throughout their adult lives…they do not have the same age-related infertility concerns that affect women,” Dr. Orwig notes. “However, advanced paternal age may be associated with an increased risk of having children with some diseases.” While this “paternal age effect” may not be a concern during a man’s 20s, 30s, or even 40s, it may become a concern later in life.

Stopping the Biological Clock

Is it too soon to start planning your family on your terms? For women in this day and age, family planning is becoming increasingly under an individual woman’s control. Whether for professional, relationship-driven, or health-related reasons, it seems that women can now hit “pause” on their biological clock.

Stay tuned for a future post exploring the Fertility Preservation Program of Pittsburgh’s innovations in the area of elective egg freezing.

Fertility Preservation Program (FPP) coordinators as well as the staff in the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Endocrinology (CFRE) at Magee are available any time to counsel patients and/or their physicians about fertility risks and treatment options. We can be reached at our dedicated fertility preservation phone line (412-641-7475) or email fertilitypreservation@upmc.edu. Additional information can be found at the FPP’s website.