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IVF Linked to Cancer

That over 1.5 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2010 is a horrifying statistic.  And the fact that many of those diagnosed will be children and young adults is downright depressing.  But for a family who would undergo expensive medical procedures to have a child in the first place, a cancer diagnosis seems especially cruel. 

Worldwide, about 3.5 million children have been conceived via IVF during the past 30 years.  As the first test tube babies have reached adulthood, scientists have begun to get a clearer picture of the special health risks these children may face as they age.  In fact, the most recent study, conducted by researchers at University of Lund in Sweden, indicates that children conceived via IVF are at significantly higher risk of developing cancer as children or young adults.

The researchers studied a total of 2.4 million births between 1982 and 2005.  Of  those children, 26,692 were born via IVF.  What they discovered that of the 94 cases of childhood and early adulthood cancers, 56 of them were in IVF children compared to just 38 in the non-IVF children.  That’s an increased risk of 46% .

While that number sounds high, lead author of the study, Dr. Bengt Kallen, says it is actually less that what many experts previously suspected.

“There has been some uncertainty about this, and we just haven’t had data good enough to show whether the risk is three or five times greater, as some people in the field believed. This paper shows us the risk in absolute terms is very small. That is the main message.”

Babies born via IVF are more likely than those conceived traditionally to be premature and to suffer breathing problems – both factors that have previously been linked to an increased risk of cancer.  In addition, IVF babies tend to have lower birth weights which, while not a contributing factor in and of itself, often leads to other health problems that are, such as diabetes and obesity.

While the researchers can’t say exactly why a child born via IVF would be at greater risk of developing cancer, they suspect it may have more to do with the parents’ infertility issues than the IVF procedure.  Previous research of infertile women who underwent IVF and those who did not found no association between the treatment and increased rates of preterm birth, low birth weight or cancer risk.

And the upshot seems to be this:  The possibility of an increased risk of developing cancer shouldn’t – and likely won’t – deter a couple from pursuing IVF.  Because with out it, many would never have children at all.

Image: moyix/Flickr

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