Meet NZ's miracle baby

02:47, Jul 06 2009
STAD
LITTLE WONDER: This gorgeous little girl is 12 weeks old. But she is no ordinary baby - she spent the last 16 years as a frozen embryo, suspended in a vat of liquid nitrogen with 11 other potential siblings at an Auckland fertility clinic.

Meet Cadence, an Auckland baby who was a frozen embryo for nearly 16 years before being donated by her genetic parents to an infertile couple.

She is believed to be New Zealand's longest ever case of human embryo cryostorage, and the second longest in the world. 

The beautiful baby girl smiles as she clasps her genetic brother's teenage-sized finger, staring intently into his eyes.

"She's cute," he murmurs, carefully cradling her.

The pair share more than just genes. They shared a test tube more than 16 years ago.

Unlike him, this miracle newborn has spent 15½ years snap-frozen at -196C as a two-cell embryo, suspended in a vat of liquid nitrogen with 11 other potential siblings at an Auckland fertility clinic.

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"It's amazing after more than 15 years in a test tube, she can come out so beautiful. And she has the most gorgeous smile," he gushes.

He, too, started life as a frozen embryo, but was thawed after just a few weeks and was born at Christmas in 1993. Now, the Year 11 student is on the eve of sitting his restricted driver's licence.

His 17-year-old older brother, who is also clearly smitten with the tiny baby, admits the situation is hard to comprehend.

The boys' parents, Aucklanders Peter and Chris, experienced nine years of heartbreaking infertility before adopting their elder son in December 1991. Two years later, their younger son was born following private IVF treatment. As the years passed, Peter and Chris decided their family was complete.

The only problem was they had 12 surplus frozen embryos. The options were discarding or keeping them frozen. They ruled out discarding the embryos because of their long battle to create life, so decided to keep the embryos on ice, hoping a law change would allow their donation.

The law allowing embryo donation came into force in July 2005, under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology (HART) Act, but Peter and Chris only heard about it in 2007.

After gaining their two sons' approval, they began looking at profiles of infertile couples keen to receive donated embryos. They were about to change another Auckland couple's life forever.

Darryn and Nicola met in August 1992 and married in November 1993. Nine years ago, they started trying to have a baby.

"I was about 30 when we felt ready for a family and thought we shouldn't leave it too late," says Nicola, 39.

They tried for about three years but nothing happened. Tests and a multitude of conception methods followed without success. Doctors told them they had unexplained infertility.

Three cycles of IVF failed and they were warned further attempts were likely doomed so they began investigating other options, including adoption and fostering. They heard about embryo donation in mid-2006 so lodged a profile at Auckland's Fertility Plus, the fertility and reproductive endocrinology unit for National Women's Health, based at Greenlane Clinical Centre.

Several times they were considered by donors, only to be devastated when they were rejected.

At an adoption course in 2007, they were warned their chances were poor, with only 25 of the 100 couples seeking to adopt each year getting a baby. An opportunity to foster a young boy also fell through that year.

They began steeling themselves for the likelihood of life without children.

"We've sat here on the couch many, many nights in tears, just holding each other," says Darryn, 42.

Their luck finally changed in January last year, when Fertility Plus rang to confirm Peter and Chris had selected them for embryo donation. It was the good news they had yearned for but they kept it from family and friends in case of failure.

"It's like winning Lotto," says Darryn. "If you've got $10 million, you're not going to tell the world."

They knew embryo donation was a complex process, plus they were dubious whether such old embryos would survive being thawed.

"When we were told the age of the embryos, we thought `Oh gosh, they're 15 years old' but we don't think that now," Nicola says.

In March last year, the two couples met for the first time at a counselling session, which proved a huge success. They talked for more than four hours, their family values and sense of humour well-matched.

"Once we got talking, the counsellors couldn't get a word in edgeways," says Darryn.

After an anxious six-week wait, the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (Ecart) approved their application.

Soon after, Peter and Chris formally signed over legal parental rights for six of their 12 frozen embryos to Nicola and Darryn, deciding to retain six embryos in case the law changes to allow them to donate to another couple. Currently, embryo donation is limited to one family.

The first embryo, frozen solid for all those years in a tiny straw, began slowly thawing one winter's day last July (see embryo freezing process sidebar, right). It was placed into Nicola's womb two days later as a five-cell embryo. This is the photo on the front page of Nicola's baby photo album; an inscription below reads: "The first day of the rest of your life."

When Nicola's pregnancy test was positive two weeks later, she rang Darryn and casually said: "Hi dad."

"I just dropped the phone," Darryn says, beaming.

The excited pair next called Peter and Chris, who were equally stunned but ecstatic.

As the months ticked on, the first-time parents transformed their home into a baby haven, revelling in every step.

Their precious daughter was born by Caesarean section on April 2 at North Shore Hospital to the strains of Bic Runga. She was delivered two weeks before her due date because her growth had slowed. Her birth is captured on video. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cadence," Darryn proudly announces moments after her arrival.

Fast forward 10 weeks and the families have come together to talk exclusively with the Sunday Star-Times, eager to promote embryo donation.

The words on Cadence's long-sleeved top quirkily sum up the unusual situation: "Are these people really my relatives?"

"You could call us a mishmash of families but we are two families united with love," Darryn says.

The Ethics Committee encourages openness between embryo donation families, unlike the anonymity preferred in some countries, such as America.

"As soon as Cadence is at an age to understand, she will be told about Peter and Chris," says Darryn.

Nicola was adopted and believes openness around a child's birth family is vital. She sees many similarities between adoption and embryo donation: "It's like adoption with a pregnancy attached."

Nicola and Darryn were initially nervous about the level of contact their donors might want.

"I didn't want anyone landing on our doorstep saying `Thanks for bringing up our child'," Darryn says.

However, their fears have been appeased over time.

Darryn says: "Peter approached me and said, `We will have the interaction you want'. It was like Peter saying, `She's yours bring her up your way'," he says. "They keep reiterating `it's your family'."

Peter, Chris and their youngest son first met Cadence two days after her birth. It was an emotional moment. The video captures Chris's tears as she looks into her genetic daughter's eyes for the first time.

Darryn says some people raised concerns their baby's genetic mother may regret not thawing the embryos to have her own daughter.

"We were watching for any signs she was trying to bond with her. She hasn't," he says. "[Chris] has always said she wouldn't, but she's human too."

Chris says she has no regrets and is happy for Darryn and Nicola.

"When I first picked Cadence up I thought, if I'd had a girl, this is what she would have been like. But then I think, no, I've got two beautiful boys."

Cadence is Darryn and Nicola's daughter, not hers, Chris says.

As a birth gift, Peter and Chris gave the new parents a beautiful leather photo album with Darryn and Nicola's family name embossed in gold letters on its cover.

"I broke down when I saw that," Darryn says, "to just see we are finally a family now."

Undeniably, the couples are on a sensitive, rarely trodden path.

Both families agree open communication is vital. And their mutual respect and warm relationship is evident. As the families talk, they swap parenting tips Peter tells how they put their eldest son on the washing machine as a baby so the vibrations would rock him to sleep. Curiosity over the genetic link naturally surfaces.

"Has she still got blue eyes?" Chris asks.

"Yes," Nicola replies.

They're different to Chris's hazel eyes and Peter's green eyes, as well as their youngest son's.

"Peter's mum has blue eyes," Chris adds.

Nicola can see some physical traits Cadence has inherited from her genetic parents. Ironically, some people, unaware of the embryo donation, point out the baby's likenesses to Darryn and Nicola.

"People who don't know sometimes say `She looks just like you' or `Oh, she has your nose'. Her eye colour is the same blue as mine and she's fine featured, like me," Nicola says.

They compare Cadence's weight to her genetic brother's baby milestones, who was born a week overdue.

"She would probably have been the same weight if she'd been in as long," Chris says.

While their journey is in its infancy, both couples have only good things to say about embryo donation.

"It's all positive," Darryn says.

It is impossible, says Peter, to describe their joy at seeing a baby born after determinedly keeping the embryos frozen for so long.

"When you look at Cadence, you couldn't imagine disposing of her," he says.

Keeping embryos frozen for so long is controversial and banned in most countries unless people get exemptions.

Several international cryopreservation experts told the Sunday Star-Times the only known longer case of a frozen IVF human embryo becoming a baby was in the United Kingdom in 2005, where a mother had a baby 16 years after her first IVF child.

"It is astonishing and I think the community will be interested in it," says Dr Alan Trounson, a former Australian embryologist who helped create the world's first frozen IVF baby in Melbourne in 1984.

Long-term freezing was debated in the early days of freezing IVF embryos, he says.

"I was always comfortable with it. I thought it was up to the patients to decide," says American-based Trounson, who heads the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, one of America's top stem cell research institutes. He says there is no reason why human embryos can't remain frozen for decades.

"Some people might feel outraged about it," Trounson says.

Darryn and Nicola admit there have been a few negative jibes about the embryo's age.

"One person said `she's missed out on all her generation'. What a cruel thing to say," Darryn says.

Whether Cadence and her genetic brother are fraternal twins isn't clear because definitions vary from requiring the babies to be born from the same pregnancy to simply being conceived at the same time.

"We've tried to answer that question ourselves," Peter says. While they don't know the answer, they believe life begins when the fertilised egg starts dividing.

Darryn and Nicola are keen to have three or four children and plan to try again with another of their remaining frozen donated embryos early next year, unless they fall pregnant naturally. If successful, their next offspring will break world records as the longest time a human embryo has been frozen then successfully thawed.

Both families desperately want to encourage others with surplus frozen IVF embryos to consider donating to other infertile couples.

"If there is another couple out there who can donate or one couple who can receive because of this story, that's worth it," Peter says.

"There are a lot of people out there who can make this happen," says Chris.

"They [the frozen embryos] sit in limbo all this time, but to see something happen to them beats seeing them destroyed. They are life she's an example of this," she says of Cadence.

Nicola says the embryos have been "an unbelievable gift". "We want potential donors to know that this can be such a wonderful thing for the recipients and the donors. No money, not anything can compare to this. Peter and Chris see the joy on our faces. They get to know that what they did years ago hasn't gone to waste. Embryos are created to potentially be a life, not to be stored. Just look at Cadence and you know that."

Sunday Star Times