by Bernard Chan

On December 1, 2013, a party was held at the Island Shangri-la Hotel to celebrate the birth of 100 immunology-assisted babies in Hong Kong.  The party was organized by the mothers of the babies, the oldest being 7 years old. He was unable to be present at the party but we showed a video of him playing the piano, which he has played since the age of 4.

Worldwide, one couple in seven cannot successfully, naturally, conceive a child. Modern assisted reproduction technology can help some couples, particularly those with male factor infertility. Direct injection of the sperm into the egg, or ICSI, one of the principal techniques of in vitro fertilization (IVF) can overcome most male factors, which account for about 25% of infertility cases.  Female factors account for about half of the remaining cases and can be successfully treated. However this still leaves many infertility cases unexplained.

How does a haematologist become involved in infertility treatment? In my own case it was my interest in immunology from the days when I was active in stem cell transplantation, which got me hooked. It is well known that a woman’s immune system is intimately involved in reproduction.  The mother has both to recognize the baby as her own; while at the same time recognizing that many of the genes of the baby are “foreign”. Pregnancy is a unique situation in which a foreign body- the baby- is accepted within the body and grows to a great size, without being rejected. This process is called immunological tolerance.

The American Society for Reproductive Immunology (ASRI) was founded 34 years ago.  Last year we held a joint meeting with the European Society for Reproductive Immunology, which also has many active members.  About 20 years ago, the U.S. National Institutes of Health gave a foundation grant to establish a clinical immunology laboratory at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago.  This has become a worldwide standard reference laboratory for difficult problems in patients with “unexplained infertility”.  Each week we send specimens to Chicago to be analyzed and so in many case we were able to help infertile women to conceive. Many of our cases suffer from recurrent miscarriages, including two women with 8 miscarriages each (the world record is 19 miscarriages!). Both IVF failure and recurrent miscarriages can be successfully treated.  The 100 Babies Party was a happy occasion and a milestone on the way to helping even more couples.

For more information please visit a website jointly produced by ASRI.  The Society has many members in Japan, Korea and some in China and looking for more active participation from doctors and scientists in Asia.

Notes by Bernard Chan, Rotary Club of Hong Kong Island West.