By MONIQUE DEVEREUX health reporter

An embryo testing scheme that scientists believe may "almost certainly guarantee" to increase pregnancy rates for older women has cleared its first ethical hurdle.

Auckland-based Fertility Associates wants to introduce a screening process that will separate healthy embryos from those unlikely to develop into viable pregnancies for its in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) programme.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health's national ethics committee gave interim approval for a feasibility study to find how successful the screening programme would be.

Fertility Associates' scientific director, Dr Bert Stewart, said yesterday that the company did not want to "promise the earth" to infertile or older women - who often have more trouble conceiving.

But based on similar programmes in other Western countries, screening the embryos "almost always results in an increased number of pregnancies."

A similar programme in the United States had doubled the chances of pregnancy for women in their late 30s to early 40s.

Once the feasibility study has been completed, Fertility Associates will have to reapply to the national ethics committee for approval to use the process clinically.

Dr Stewart hopes to be able to apply within six months, although that will depend on the number of available cells that are donated for study.

The screening process, which Dr Stewart says is already used "in almost every other country you can think of," is called Fish - fluorescent in-situ hybridisation.

It identifies which embryos, fertilised during the IVF process, have the correct number of chromosomes to survive through the pregnancy.

The screening process would be particularly helpful to older women.

Each woman has a finite number of eggs and by her late 30s most of her eggs have already gone, and those left are not always of high quality.

They may still be easily fertilised, either naturally or by IVF, but the resulting embryo is more likely to have the incorrect number of chromosomes to continue as a viable pregnancy.

That can mean a miscarriage.

The Fish process would not only prevent the heartache of a miscarriage, but it could also save money by reducing the number of IVF treatment cycles - costing $4500 each - that some women would have to go through.

Dr Stewart said he understood public nervousness about such procedures, but stressed that the screening programme looked only at viable embryos and was not able to detect individual genes.

"This is not a process that allows parents to find out if their child will have blond hair, blue eyes and super-intelligence.

"What we are aiming for is a higher success rate for pregnancy in people who may have otherwise faced a number of failures."

The Fish technique could be modified to detect genetic disorders, but Fertility Associates would not be applying to test for those.

Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley, who last year pushed for the development of the national ethics committee, said she understood the attraction for women wanting to become pregnant easier, but was wary of what the process could be developed into.

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