Belgian hospital became first to use sperm injection treatment 30 years ago

Belgian hospital became first to use sperm injection treatment 30 years ago
The infertility treatment sees one single sperm cell being introduced into an egg cell. Credit: UZ Brussel

Thirty years ago, the first baby in the world conceived using a fertility treatment for male infertility was born at the university hospital in Brussels (UZ Brussel).

January 2022 marks the anniversary of an important breakthrough in the approach to male infertility, as three decades ago the first baby was born after being conceived using Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), a technique through which one single sperm cell is introduced into an egg cell in the laboratory.

"The technique we used already existed: inserting a sperm cell into an egg cell. However, the sperm cell was not introduced into the cytoplasm and this did not work with the needles used at the time," UZ Brussel's André Van Steirteghem, who is a pioneer of fertility treatments in Belgium, said.

"We designed a needle ourselves that was very fine and precise, which hardly damaged the egg cell and hoped that fertilisation could occur more easily. Inadvertently, a sperm cell was introduced into the cytoplasm, resulting in the successful fertilisation of just that egg cell."

"After our further research and follow-up, it turned out that this new technique produced excellent results: ICSI could start its advance."

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Since then, even men with very few sperm cells have been able to become fathers. In total, more than six million ICSI children have been born in the last 30 years.

Continued research for new techniques

The treatment can also be used for men who have no sperm cells in their ejaculate, and who previously could only become fathers through donor insemination, by removing a few sperm cells from the testicles via a biopsy (TESE) and then applying ICSI.

Studies into the fertility of boys born using the ICSI treatment showed that their fertility does not appear to be compromised.

In the Belgian reproductive health centres, around 20,000 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) cycles — in which a man's sperm and a woman's eggs are combined outside of the body in a lab — take place every year, of which around 80% are carried out using ICSI.

Despite the enormous technological advances made by this technique, there are still a large number of people who are not able to have children, according to Herman Tournaye, head of the centre for reproductive medicine at UZ Brussel.

"We, therefore, continue to work on research into new techniques and technologies. In clinical research at UZ Brussel and laboratory research via the research groups of the VUB, more than 250 people are directly or indirectly involved in research into (in)fertility, genetics, implantation, ova, sperm production, etc."


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