COMMENTARY

Top 10 Unproven Infertility Tests and Treatments

Mark P. Trolice, MD

Disclosures

December 01, 2022

In 2019, a New York Times opinion piece titled, “The Big IVF Add-On Racket – This is no way to treat patients desperate for a baby”[1] alleged exploitation of infertility patients based on a Fertility and Sterility article, “Do à la carte menus serve infertility patients? The ethics and regulation of in vitro fertility add-ons.”[2] The desperation of infertility patients combined with their financial burden, caused by inconsistent insurance coverage, has resulted in a perfect storm of frustration and overzealous recommendations for a successful outcome. Since the inception of in vitro fertilization (IVF) itself, infertility patients have been subjected to many unproven tests and procedures that enter the mainstream of care before unequivocal efficacy and safety have been shown.

Mark P. Trolice, MD

From ovarian stimulation with intrauterine insemination (IUI) or IVF along with intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), assisted hatching, and preimplantation genetic testing for aneuploidy (PGT-A), a multitude of options with varying success can overwhelm fertility patients as they walk the tightrope of wanting “the kitchen sink” of treatment while experiencing sticker shock. This month’s article examines the top 10 infertility add-ons that have yet to be shown to improve pregnancy outcomes.

1. Blood testing: Prolactin and FSH

In a woman with ovulatory monthly menstrual cycles, a serum prolactin level provides no elucidation of the cause of infertility. If obtained following ovulation, prolactin can often be physiologically elevated, thereby compelling a repeat blood level, which is ideally performed during the early proliferative phase. False elevations of prolactin can be caused by an early morning blood sample, eating, and stress – which may result from worry caused by having to repeat the unnecessary initial blood test!

Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) was a first-line hormone test to assess for ovarian age. For nearly 15 years now, FSH has been replaced by anti-Müllerian hormone as a more reliable and earlier test for diminished ovarian reserve. However, FSH is still the hormone test of choice to diagnose primary ovarian insufficiency. Note that the use of ovarian age testing in a woman without infertility can result in both unnecessary patient anxiety and additional testing.

2. Endometrial scratch

The concept was understandable, that is, induce endometrial trauma by a biopsy or “scratch,” that results in an inflammatory and immunologic response to increase implantation. Endometrial sampling was recommended to be performed during the month prior to the embryo transfer cycle. While the procedure is brief, the pain response of women varies from minimal to severe. Unfortunately, a randomized controlled trial of over 1,300 patients did not show any improvement in the IVF live birth rate from the scratch procedure.[3]

3. Diagnostic laparoscopy

In years past, a diagnosis of unexplained infertility was not accepted until a laparoscopy was performed that revealed a normal pelvis. This approach subjected many women to an unindicated and a potentially risky surgery that has not shown benefit. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s ReproductiveFacts.org website states: “Routine diagnostic laparoscopy should not be performed unless there is a suspicion of pelvic pathology based on clinical history, an abnormal pelvic exam, or abnormalities identified with less invasive testing. In patients with a normal hysterosalpingogram or the presence of a unilaterally patent tube, diagnostic laparoscopy typically will not change the initial recommendation for treatment.”

4. Prescribing clomiphene citrate without IUI

Ovulation dysfunction is found in 40% of female factors for fertility. Provided testing reveals a reasonably normal sperm analysis and hysterosalpingogram, ovulation induction medication with ultrasound monitoring along with an hCG trigger is appropriate. In women who ovulate with unexplained infertility and/or mild male factor, the use of clomiphene citrate or letrozole with timed intercourse is often prescribed, particularly in clinics when IUI preparation is not available. Unfortunately, without including IUI, the use of oral ovarian stimulation has been shown by good evidence to be no more effective than natural cycle attempts at conception.[4]

5. Thrombophilia testing

Recurrent miscarriage, defined by the spontaneous loss of two or more pregnancies (often during the first trimester but may include up to 20 weeks estimated gestational age), has remained an ill-defined problem that lacks a consensus on the most optimal evaluation and treatment. In 2006, an international consensus statement provided guidance on laboratory testing for antiphospholipid syndrome limited to lupus anticoagulant, anticardiolipin IgG and IgM, and IgG and IgM anti–beta2-glycoprotein I assays.[5] ASRM does not recommend additional thrombophilia tests as they are unproven causative factors of recurrent miscarriage.

6. Screening hysteroscopy

A standard infertility evaluation includes ovulation testing, assessment of fallopian tube patency, and a sperm analysis. In a subfertile women with a normal ultrasound or hysterosalpingogram in the basic fertility work-up, a Cochrane data review concluded there is no definitive evidence for improved outcome with a screening hysteroscopy prior to IUI or IVF.[6,7] Two large trials included in the Cochrane review, confirmed similar live birth rates whether or not hysteroscopy was performed before IVF. There may value in screening patients with recurrent implantation failure.

7. PGT-A for all

As the efficacy of the first generation of embryo preimplantation genetic testing, i.e., FISH (fluorescence in situ hybridization) was disproven, so has the same result been determined for PGT-A, specifically in women younger than 35.[8] In an elegant randomized prospective trial, Munne and colleagues showed no improvement in the ongoing pregnancy rate (OPR) of study patients of all ages who were enrolled with the intention to treat. However, a subanalysis of patients aged 35-40 who completed the protocol did show an improved OPR and lower miscarriage rate per embryo transfer. While there is no evidence to support improved outcomes with the universal application of PGT-A, there may be some benefit in women older than 35 as well as in certain individual patient circumstances.

8. ICSI for nonmale factor infertility; assisted hatching

In an effort to reduce the risk of fertilization failure, programs have broadened the use of ICSI to nonmale factor infertility. While it has been used in PGT to reduce the risk of DNA contamination, particularly in PGT-M (monogenic disorder) and PGT-SR (structural rearrangement) cases, ICSI has not been shown to improve outcomes when there is a normal sperm analysis.[9] During IVF embryo development, assisted hatching involves the thinning and/or opening of the zona pellucida either by chemical, mechanical, or laser means around the embryo before transfer with the intention of facilitating implantation. The routine use of assisted hatching is not recommended based on the lack of increase in live birth rates and because it may increase multiple pregnancy and monozygotic twinning rates.[10]

9. Acupuncture

Four meta-analyses showed no evidence of the overall benefit of acupuncture for improving live birth rates regardless of whether acupuncture was performed around the time of oocyte retrieval or around the day of embryo transfer. Consequently, acupuncture cannot be recommended routinely to improve IVF outcomes.[11]

10. Immunologic tests/treatments

Given the “foreign” genetic nature of a fetus, attempts to suppress the maternal immunologic response to sustain the pregnancy have been made for decades, especially for recurrent miscarriage and recurrent implantation failure with IVF. Testing has included natural killer (NK) cells, human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genotypes, and cytokines. While NK cells can be examined by endometrial biopsy, levels fluctuate based on the cycle phase, and no correlation between peripheral blood testing and uterine NK cell levels has been shown. Further, no consensus has been reached on reliable normal reference ranges in uterine NK cells.[12]

Several treatments have been proposed to somehow modulate the immune system during the implantation process thereby improving implantation and live birth, including lipid emulsion (intralipid) infusion, intravenous immunoglobulin, leukocyte immunization therapy, tacrolimus, anti–tumor necrosis factor agents, and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis cited low-quality studies and did not recommend the use of any of these immune treatments.[13] Further, immunomodulation has many known side effects, some of which are serious (including hepatosplenomegaly, thrombocytopenia, leukopenia, renal failure, thromboembolism, and anaphylactic reactions). Excluding women with autoimmune disease, taking glucocorticoids or other immune treatments to improve fertility has not been proven.[13]

Conclusion

To quote the New York Times opinion piece, “IVF remains an under-regulated arena, and entrepreneurial doctors and pharmaceutical and life science companies are eager to find new ways to cash in on a growing global market that is projected to be as large as $40 billion by 2024.” While this bold statement compels a huge “Ouch!”, it reminds us of our obligation to provide evidence-based medicine and to include emotional and financial harm to our oath of Primum non nocere.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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