Researchers in Belgium have developed a low-cost IVF treatment that could make fertility treatment “universally accessible” in poor and developing countries.

The study shows that the new technique gives results similar to those achieved through conventional IVF treatment used in developed countries.

A cycle of IVF with the simplified procedure could be performed for just 200 euros ($257).

The researchers say: “We estimate that the cost of our simplified laboratory system is between 10% and 15% of current costs in Western-style IVF programs.

“We showed that the IVF methodology can be significantly simplified and result in successful outcomes at levels that compare favorably to those obtained in high resource programs.”

According to Resolve, the National Infertility Association, infertility treatment in the US costs around $12,400 per cycle.

The cost of the simplified IVF treatment developed by the researchers in Belgium could open up the procedure to many more people around the world who cannot afford the conventional method.

The system tested in the study – which is at the proof-of-principle stage – was based on an “embryo culture method” using carbon dioxide incubators, medical gas air supply and air purification systems.

Known as tWE*, the incubator system consists of two glass tubes connected by needles and tubing. The first tube acts as a generator of carbon dioxide produced by a chemical reaction between the basic chemicals citric acid and bicarbonate of soda. This reaction feeds the second tube – the culture medium, a nutrient substance used to cultivate organisms.

Oocytes, the female reproductive germ cells – ‘egg cells’ – and sperm are injected by syringe into the tube with the culture medium, without disturbing the air environment inside the tube. Fertilization and embryo development is then assessed through the tube.

The simplified IVF system was compared in the study with conventional IVF treatment to see how pregnancy and delivery success rates differed.

The study, which began in 2012, tested the system in IVF patients under the age of 36 who had at least 8 egg cells available for fertilization. The researchers analyzed embryo quality at day 3, embryo implantation rate and ongoing pregnancy rate.

The results of the study were that in two thirds of the cycles assessed (23 out of 35 cycles or 66%), the top quality embryo came from the tWE system. The implantation rate was just over a third (8 out of 23 or 35%), while the ongoing pregnancy rate was 7 in 23 (30.4%). There was one miscarriage in the study, at week 8 of pregnancy.

The first baby born from tWE was a healthy boy at 40 weeks. So far, 12 healthy babies have have had a natural birth from this program.

Dr Elke Klerkx from the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology in Belgium says:

“Our initial results are proof of principle that a simplified culture system designed for developing countries can offer affordable and successful opportunities for infertility treatment where IVF is the only solution. This is a major step towards universal fertility care.”

The researchers add that the estimated cost of 200 euros per cycle would only be possible if poor and developing countries were able to set up a low-cost laboratory.

Dr Klerkx says that construction for a low-cost laboratory in Genk, Belgium, equipped for simplified IVF treatment should be completed by November this year.

Dr Klerkx says: “In developed countries the cost of setting up a high-quality IVF lab is between 1.5 and 3 million euros, but we would expect to see a low-cost lab for less than 300,000 euros.”

She adds: “The simplified lab procedure would undoubtedly open up a new era in the history of IVF. The method not only offers affordable and successful access to IVF, but will make effective treatment techniques available to a much larger part of the world’s infertile population. This, therefore, may also be considered an important breakthrough in terms of human rights, equity and social justice.”

This is the latest breakthrough in the field of test tube fertilization. A couple in the US recently had the first IVF baby to be born as a result of a new way of screening embryos using the latest DNA sequencing technology. See our news story, Embryo Screening IVF Breakthrough Produces Baby Connor .