A new study of 8 million children in Nordic nations reveals that infants born following frozen-thawed embryo transfer may have an increased risk of cancer. These findings were published today in PLOS Medicine by Nona Sargisian of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and colleagues.

Assisted reproductive technology (ART) makes it possible to make an embryo in a lab from a human egg and sperm. The embryo may be implanted right away by the doctor, or, in a procedure that is becoming more commonplace globally, the embryo may be frozen and thawed before implantation. Prior study indicated that children delivered following frozen-thawed transfer may have a higher short-term risk of certain medical disorders. Long-term dangers are less known.

To learn more, Sargisian and colleagues reviewed medical data from 7,944,248 Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish children.  171,744 babies were born following ART and 7,772,474 naturally. There were 22,630 frozen-thawed transfer births among those born as a result of ART.

A statistical examination of data from national health registries revealed that children born following frozen-thawed embryo transfer had a greater chance of developing cancer than children born after fresh embryo transfer and those who did not undergo assisted reproductive technology (ART). However, when all types of ART were combined (i.e., those born after frozen-thawed transfer and fresh embryo transfer), there was no increased risk of cancer. Leukemia and central nervous system tumors were the most often observed kinds of cancer in this investigation.

While this was a large study, the number of infants who got cancer after being delivered by frozen-thawed embryo transfer was rather small (48 cases), so the researchers stress that their findings should be regarded with caution.

However, the results can prompt questions regarding the transfer of frozen-thawed embryos. The possibility of a connection between the surgery and an elevated risk of cancer, as well as any molecular pathways that may underlie such risk, would require further study.

“A higher risk of cancer in children born after frozen-thawed embryo transfer in assisted reproduction, a large study from the Nordic countries found. The individual risk was low, while at a population level it may have an impact due to the huge increase in frozen cycles after assisted reproduction. No increase in cancer was found among children born after assisted reproduction techniques overall,” add Ulla-Britt Wennerholm, the study’s coauthor.

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