Better Odds for Miracle Babies

Swiss-based Anecova's technique allows fertilization to take place in the uterus, resulting in stronger embryos than those created in vitro

Since 1978, when scientists announced the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, many of the 80 million people around the world who struggle with infertility have turned to clinics hoping to re-create that miracle. Today, about 500,000 in vitro fertilization procedures are performed annually—but only 20% to 30% of them succeed.

Anecova aims to improve those odds. The Lausanne, Switzerland company, one of the 2008 Technology Pioneers named by the World Economic Forum on Nov. 29, has developed a technique that allows fertilization and early embryo development to take place in the uterus, rather than in the laboratory as in IVF procedures.

Eggs and sperm are placed in a tiny, permeable, silicon-based vessel on the end of a thin, wire-like device that is inserted into the uterus. The device stays in the uterus for up to five days; then doctors remove it and select the most viable embryo, which is quickly implanted back into the womb.

For the Benefit of Society

Initial studies show this method produces hardier embryos than those incubated in the lab, holding out the promise of more successful pregnancies. And it costs less than IVF, because there is no need for expensive incubation equipment. That could put the procedure within reach of lower-income couples, including those in developing countries, who now can't afford IVF.

That is the hope of Martin Velasco, the 53-year-old Spaniard behind Anecova. A veteran technology entrepreneur and business angel, he has worked on projects ranging from business intelligence for banks to a vaccine for Alzheimer's disease. But Anecova, he says, gives him a chance to have an even greater impact. "This is one of those very rare chances to do something that can be really beneficial to society," he says.

The idea for Anecova's technology came from a Swiss gynecologist, Pascal Mock, who was introduced to Velasco by a doctor friend in December, 2003. Velasco immediately saw the device's potential and offered to help raise money and set up a company to commercialize it.

The Proof Is in the Babies

After creating Anecova in March, 2004, Velasco assembled an advisory board of leading scientists. They include Patrick Aebischer, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which helped develop the Anecova device; Carlos Simon, director of a leading IVF clinic in Valencia, Spain; and Paul Devroey, who runs a well-known IVF clinic in Belgium. The Belgian clinic conducted trials of the device, leading to the first two "Anecova babies," a boy and a girl, both born last June.

Anecova has received regulatory approval to introduce the device in Europe and expects to start selling it in mid-2008. It plans to seek approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and has scheduled preliminary talks in mid-December. The company is pledging 10% of future profits to a foundation it is setting up, to finance projects that will improve assisted reproduction technologies and increase their use in developing countries.

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