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Archive for Sunday, September 19, 2004

Firm offers service to freeze women’s eggs

Former technology executive launches company that creates controversy

September 19, 2004

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— Christy Jones says her idea for a business to freeze women's eggs came when her own biological clock alarm rang at age 32.

It was 2002, and two of her close friends were having trouble getting pregnant. A new, much-publicized book contended that childless executives in their 40s had themselves to blame for waiting too long to have a family.

Jones' contemplation of motherhood coincided with a need for a new project. A formerly high-powered tech executive, she had graced Forbes' cover three times before she was 30. But now the Internet boom was over.

So Jones developed and founded Extend Fertility, which charges $15,000 to freeze eggs for women 40 and under as a kind of biological insurance policy. The eggs can be implanted later, as ova quality drops dramatically after age 35 and is a chief cause of infertility.

Some experts have doubts about the procedure, and about marketing it to a target group -- women in their 30s -- that has strong emotions about fertility and might be easily exploited.

Several prominent fertility specialists think it gives women a sense of security about postponing child bearing until their 40s that isn't justified by the technology's limited history and significant failure rate. And with only about 100 babies ever born worldwide from frozen eggs, experts say that is too few to judge if the procedure causes health defects.

Jones said her success rate should be about 30 percent; critics say she shouldn't cite any rate since the company is so new it hasn't yet helped one woman conceive.

Even as she was launching her company this year, Jones froze a dozen of her own eggs, at a Stanford University clinic.

"This is an issue I'm personally passionate about," she said.

Christy Jones, president and founder of Extend Fertility, left, and
Dr. Bradford Kolb pose for a photo in Pasadena, Calif. Jones
developed and founded Extend Fertility, which charges $15,000 to
freeze eggs for women 40 and under as a kind of biological
insurance policy. They were pictured Aug. 16 at their workplace.

Christy Jones, president and founder of Extend Fertility, left, and Dr. Bradford Kolb pose for a photo in Pasadena, Calif. Jones developed and founded Extend Fertility, which charges $15,000 to freeze eggs for women 40 and under as a kind of biological insurance policy. They were pictured Aug. 16 at their workplace.

Pros, cons of procedure

One of her first clients, Cassandra McCarthy, defends Extend Fertility as she begins the medical process that will lead to having her eggs frozen.

"They told me I was entering at my own risk. I'm glad I have the choice," she said. "It takes some of the pressure off."

McCarthy, 34, had recently broken up with a long-term boyfriend when she read about Extend Fertility on the Internet. Other dating prospects were dim. McCarthy said she just isn't ready to be a mother.

However, the Association of Reproductive Medicine will issue a statement as early as this month calling the technology experimental and saying it shouldn't be marketed as biological insurance.

"I think it is totally unethical to offer this as a service at this point," said Michael Tucker, InVitro lab director at Shady Grove Fertility Center in Rockville, Md., an egg freezing pioneer. "People don't hear what you say, they hear what they want to hear and wind up paying for a service which they believe is much closer to certainty than it really is."

How it works

In the procedure, women take drugs to stimulate production of eggs, which are extracted from the ovaries, treated with a protectant and frozen in liquid nitrogen. When needed, they are chemically thawed, fertilized and implanted in the womb.

Freezing has been slow to find a place in the booming fertility market for several reasons. Eggs are very fragile and damage easily. They are mostly water and highly susceptible to freezer burn. Freezing also creates a coating around the egg that limits sperm penetration. That problem has been somewhat overcome by technology that allows the sperm to be injected directly into the egg.

Extend Fertility will use procedures developed at the University of Bologna, which has more babies born from frozen eggs than any other clinic -- 51 children in 10 years. Bologna's clinic has a pregnancy rate of around 19 percent and a live birth rate of roughly 14 percent.

The Florida Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Jacksonville has a much higher live-birth rate, of between 40 percent and 50 percent. The clinic has helped conceive 33 children in six years. Still, Dr. Kevin Winslow, the institute's director, said the rates were too low for commercial application. "The technology isn't ready for prime time," he said.

Jones says that she tells her clients the technology is experimental, but insists that shouldn't be an impediment to marketing.

Jones believes she can improve on Bologna's success rate, because she will be working with healthy young women instead of infertile couples. Sole owner of her company, she signed a deal to become the sole distributor of the solution used in Bologna to freeze eggs. Jones plans a central facility for egg storage and manufacture of the freezing solution, to ensure high standards.

Jones' strategy is to partner with existing fertility clinics, teaching them how to freeze and defrost eggs. She markets the service, and the money from customers is split. Her goal is to have 100 clients in 12 months.

So far, three clinics have signed up. Doctors at the Huntington Reproductive Center in Pasadena, Calif., said they were impressed with her background and personality. Moreover, the infertility business is highly competitive, and offering the new service can provide partner clinics with an edge.

"Why not offer it? It is a hedge against the future for women," said Dr. Bradford Kolb, a partner at Huntington and a member of Extend Fertility's medical advisory board. "It is not a guarantee, but a hedge.

With about 5 million women in their 30s who have not yet had children, Jones thinks there is a big potential market to be tapped. Cancer patients who could be left sterile by chemotherapy and women at risk for early menopause are also potential clients. Her plan is to crisscross the country, preaching egg freezing to as many women's groups, gynecologists and cancer societies that she can find.

Founder's experience

Egg freezing couldn't ask for a better ambassador: with her long brown hair, big pearl earrings and stylish blue suits, Jones looks like the president of the Junior League. She's down-to-earth, warm and surprisingly demur given her tech-powerhouse past.

That past, however, includes mixed results. She was one of the founders of software developer Trilogy Inc., launched when she was a sophomore at Stanford University. Later on, she founded PcOrder.com, which started as a division of Trilogy and allowed clients to buy and sell computer components on the Internet.

The funds being used to develop Extend come from the $4.3 million that Jones earned from PcOrder.com's splashy IPO in 1999. PcOrder.com went from a high of $80 in the first half of 1999 to a low of $3.06 in late 2000. It was then reabsorbed by Trilogy, and Jones left when the transaction was complete.

Badly hurt shareholders filed suit, claiming mismanagement of the company. Jones concedes she made some mistakes, but blames most of the troubles on the Internet bust and the perils of living up to Wall Street's expectations.

Extend Fertility's former scientific director, Barry Behr, who heads the IVF lab at Stanford University, said Jones may raise the profile of egg freezing -- but that may just lead competitors into the market. In fact, there are recipes for the freezing solution on the Internet, including the one Jones is using.

Jones isn't deterred.

"The company will take some time to build, a long time," Jones said. "But I want to help women."

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