In vitro fertilization (IVF) has long been the go-to option for couples who aren’t able to conceive naturally. Unfortunately, not everyone has an insurance plan that covers the cost or can afford to pay the out of pocket cost of IVF. There are also some who struggle with the clinical nature of the process, since embryos are created within the laboratory setting.
Now, Penn Medicine is offering an attractive alternative to traditional IVF that uses an Intravaginal Culture Device (more commonly referred to as a vaginal incubator). This is a polystyrene capsule measuring four centimeters long by three centimeters in diameter that allows embryos to develop in the natural environment of the mother’s vagina.
“The vaginal incubator was initially developed to be used in places where there is limited access to a laboratory,” explains Clarisa Gracia, MD, MSCE, Medical Director, Penn Fertility Care. “Many practices and patients, however, have found it appealing because it costs less and is a more hands-off approach to IVF.”
How It Works
As with traditional IVF, the woman must still undergo follicle stimulation and a minor surgical procedure to retrieve her eggs. The difference is that this approach requires fewer eggs — generally less than 10 — and the amount of hormone drugs used for follicle stimulation is significantly decreased.
“The eggs that we retrieve are combined with the partner or donor’s sperm and a bit of culture fluid in this little container that we close and place inside the mother’s vagina,” Gracia explains. “Three to five days later, when the woman comes back in, we’ll remove the container and expect to find embryos.”
One or two of the best quality embryos are placed within the mother’s uterus. If there are additional good quality embryos, these may be frozen for future use if the parents choose.
Of course, one thing that many women want to know is whether the vaginal incubator is uncomfortable.
“Most women don’t even notice it’s there,” says Gracia. “Once it’s placed in the vagina, it stays put quite nicely. This means that women can go about their daily activities without a problem.”
The whole process costs around $7K, a discount that Gracia attributes largely to the reduction in laboratory services.
“When you create embryos in a laboratory you need special incubators to mimic the uterine environment, this can be very expensive,” she says. “Placing the incubator in the vagina is similar to the natural conditions that are conducive to creating embryos.”
According to INVOcell, the creator of the vaginal incubator, because the device is newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s not yet covered by insurance. It has been available for use in Europe since 2008.