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IVF, Birth Defects, and Pediatric Cancer: The Connection

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Finding the risk factors for cancer has been the ardent task of scientists over the last two centuries, as cancers continue to afflict people of all ages, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S. every year. If causes and risk factors can be correlated, then scientists can discover how to avoid and treat cancers in sufferers young and old. It is perhaps more traumatic to witness a child diagnosed with cancer, as their young life abruptly and permanently alters course from the trivial to the potentially fatal. As such, delving into why a child may develop cancer continues to be a top priority for those in the medical community. One recent National Institutes of Health study suggests that being born with birth defects increases a child’s risk of pediatric cancer. Upon investigating the issue further, researchers concluded that babies conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) are at greater risk for birth defects than children conceived without IVF, and at greater risk for cancer as well.

Finding the Connection between In Vitro Fertilization, Birth Defects, and Cancer Risk

Comparing the records of over 1 million naturally conceived children against nearly 53,000 IVF conceived children in four states, researchers found that within the group of naturally conceived children, those born with birth defects were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as those born without birth defects. For the IVF group born with birth defects, the likelihood of having cancer was four-times greater than IVF babies without birth defects. As for those with chromosomal defects, the cancer risk was far higher in both groups. The authors of the study not only make the correlation between cancer, birth defects, and IVF, but further theorize that parents who have difficulty conceiving may have genetic abnormalities that are passed to their offspring, ultimately raising the prospects of birth defects and cancer. Other potential sources may be embryonic mutations.

Collecting data from birth certificates, birth defect records, cancer records, and IVF data from the CDC in four states, chosen for their diversity, record-keeping methods, and higher IVF birth numbers, researchers studied the records of children born with significant birth defects that were discovered before the age of one. This cohort was then delineated into two categories: children with abnormal chromosomes and those with normal chromosomes. Insofar as race and ethnicity contribute to cancer and birth defects, the researchers also tracked those factors. They included records from mothers over 18 who used their own eggs or fresh embryos to get pregnant and give birth to a single child via IVF to closely correlate to natural conception.

How does IVF Impact Birth Defects and Childhood Cancer?

The results showed that children with birth defects had earlier cancer diagnoses than those without birth defects, with virtually all children being diagnosed within the first four years of life. Cancer risk increased with the more defects affecting a child, with IVF children being two-times as likely to experience cancer than natural born children. Interestingly, IVF children without significant birth defects were at no greater risk for cancer than children born without birth defects, but the cancer risk greatly increased for children conceived via IVF with a significant birth defect. The study also found that naturally conceived children with birth defects due to defective chromosomes were 15-times more likely to have cancer than the natural born children without birth defects. However, the IVF children with chromosomal defects were 39-times more likely to develop cancer than IVF children without birth defects.

Scientists believe the IVF birth defects are associated with embryonic tumors. They further posited that parents who need to resort to IVF may have genetic conditions that contribute to the incidence of birth defects and ensuing cancer. Altered gene expression during cell division is passed from parents to a child and thus, may be a reason why IVF children experience embryonic tumors and birth defects. Some such examples include Wilms tumor, a childhood kidney cancer, and other genetic disorders causing heart disease and childhood blastomas, which are cancers from early developing stem cells with cancer or malignant tumors.

Are Birth Defects more Common for IVF Babies?

Aside from the risk of multiple births from IVF, physicians are aware that birth defects are more common among babies conceived through infertility technology. IVF babies may be born with heart defects and defects of the urinary tract and genitals, causing boys to have abnormal urethras. Some are diagnosed with Beckwith-Weidemann syndrome, which is a growth disorder that often leads to retinal and other childhood cancers. They are also born with blood vessel tumors called angiomas that leave red growths on the skin. These growths are typically harmless but can bleed excessively if opened and may change color, shape, or size, in which case cancer is suspected.

When it comes to congenital defects and IVF, however, the source of the birth defects is unclear. Science has yet to reach a conclusive finding as to whether the causes are related to the infertility treatment or the reasons for the infertility itself. Infertility is caused by abnormal functioning in some aspect of either parent’s biology, subsequently causing problems with egg or sperm. For instance, men with low sperm counts are known to have higher incidences of chromosome defects. It stands to reason then that genetic abnormalities could be passed to children. In addition, those resorting to infertility treatments tend to be older, which increases the likelihood of congenital defects. Though rare, imprinting disorders are also associated with IVF. Imprinting occurs when one parent’s gene copies are stamped or imprinted, as opposed to both parents passing on gene copies, which causes chemical reactions that contribute to genetic disorders in the embryo. Imprinting results in various identified diseases and disorders, such as Beckwith-Weidemann syndrome.

Screening Couples for Genetic Abnormalities before In Vitro Fertilization

Bearing in mind the correlation between birth defects, cancer risk, and children conceived through in vitro fertilization, screening couples for genetic abnormalities before IVF is critically important. Preimplantation genetic screening can be used to find chromosomal defects, along with preimplantation genetic diagnosis to find genetic diseases. Using these two methods, doctors can evaluate embryos used for IVF for possible genetic abnormalities that can lead to birth defects or unsuccessful pregnancies. Pregnancy tests like amniocentesis, by which the amniotic fluid is tested for genetic abnormalities in the fetus, can predict abnormalities too. Common medical practice among obstetricians and gynecologists is to educate patients about pregnancy genetic testing, especially if the parents are among the higher risk categories for birth defects, such as parents with genetic disorders, those who have other children with congenital diseases, and older parents. Obstetricians who plan infertility treatments for couples are particularly responsible for advising their patients about genetic testing before treatment in the event of pregnancy.

Failure to Identify Birth Defect Risk Factors before IVF Implantation

When physicians fail to advise couples undergoing IVF of the higher risks of certain conditions, or fail to test them in the preimplantation stage for genetic factors that contribute to birth defects, they may be liable for medical malpractice when children are born with such diseases and disorders. If couples are fully informed of the risks, they know what to be aware of when their child is born with a birth defect and can appropriately prepare for their child’s needs. With the knowledge of birth defects after IVF and cancer risk, parents can also have their baby tested and monitored for signs of cancer or other diseases arising after birth. Without information and testing, couples may not recognize or timely treat growing cancers with symptoms that mirror other conditions. Symptoms, such as headaches, fever, weight loss, rashes, bruising, nausea, vision changes, infections, tiredness, or paleness can all be signs of cancer. They may also indicate something less dire like the common cold, flu, or viruses. In all cases, timely diagnosis and initiating treatment are significant predictors of outcomes. Pediatric cancer or any cancer is more successfully treatable if caught early. Conversely, the likelihood of worsening health and fatality increases when symptoms are left untreated.

Moreover, the late effects of cancer treatments may leave permanent damage to growing children. Chemotherapy, drugs, and radiation can create problems long-term, affecting the child’s physical growth, brain development, cognitive abilities, vision, hearing, organs, sexuality, teeth, muscles, and bones. In addition, children with certain birth defects may be prone to complications from cancer treatments. For example, children with retinopathy of prematurity may lose vision after radiation treatment. Thus, failing to timely inform, test, and diagnose congenital abnormalities in parents and children can lead to an awful chain of horrors for which negligent medical professionals are primarily the cause. The enormously high costs of ongoing medical treatment for children with cancer and other serious conditions should not be borne by the victims of obstetrical, pediatric, and other forms of medical malpractice.

What if my Child’s Condition was Undiagnosed?

Consider locating a knowledgeable medical malpractice attorney if your child’s medical complications or deteriorating condition may be due to undetected cancer or birth defects. Our team of highly experienced lawyers handling medical negligence claims for children, infants, pregnant and birthing women, can advise you of your rights and potential legal avenues to obtain compensation. Upon investigating your child’s case further, we can determine the viability of your claim and further assist with all of the complexities of a pediatric malpractice or wrongful birth lawsuit. We have vast experience with the process of filing suit and all of the stages thereafter, from preparing your case with the appropriate medical expert substantiation, to settlement negotiations, and litigating the case to successfully establish the medical errors and insufficient standard of care that led to your child’s pain and suffering, in addition to your family’s economic losses.

When you suspect any form of medical malpractice led to injuries for yourself or your child, contact our New Jersey lawyers to see if and how you may be compensated for damages. We are available to assist you in a free consultation. Simply call 866-708-8617 or send us a message to discuss your case.

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