( Julia and her much wanted son Thomas, credit: UK Guardian)
Today, there's a great article in the UK Guardian about the work of Dr. Alan Beer, whose work is being continued by Dr. Raphael Stricker. I'd been following Dr. Beer's protocol originally NOT for fertility but to help calm my disordered immune system. As you know I'm NOT a fan of pharmaceuticals, but his judicious use of them really helped me feel better, and so we're continuing with the clinic for fertility help. The role of the immune system (including thyroid!) is woefully understudied.
For anyone who has trouble getting pregnant, trouble staying pregnant, or has secondary infertility (esp. if you already know you have any autoimmune disorders--you or in your family--such as arthritis, thyroid, diabetes, lupus, etc)., I'd recommend a look at Dr. Beer's Book (see below).
[And, as always, I remind you, I am NOT a medical professional. Please make all decisions in conjunction with your doctor]
After three failed attempts at IVF, Julia Kantecki began to lose hope that she and her husband Robert would ever conceive a child.
"My baby dream was slipping away. I was 40 and fearful of shrivelling into menopause and a childless future," says Julia, 45, a former marketing director.
Robert, 56, had had a vasectomy 20 years earlier and IVF was the couple's only chance of having a child together.
Since her mother had had five children without a problem, Julia, who lived in Doncaster at the time, assumed everything would go smoothly. So it came as an enormous disappointment when she failed to become pregnant.
The worst part was that the IVF doctors couldn't offer any definitive explanation for the failure. But her experience is far from unusual - although many women assume that the wonders of modern medicine mean they will conceive easily with IVF, in fact the success rate is around 20 per cent.
Julia's doctors simply suggested she might get lucky if she kept trying. She did keep trying, twice over - but without any luck.
Then, like many women who have difficulty conceiving, Julia entered a cycle of self-blame, sadness and loss of hope.
"I kept wondering whether I'd done something to kill our future babies," she says.
"Was it because I got stressed, or drank that glass of wine?"
Conventional medicine holds that IVF failure and miscarriage are the result of hormonal problems, abnormalities of the uterus, genetically defective embryos or ageing eggs.
But doctors from the Alan E Beer Center for Reproductive Immunology, in San Francisco, believe they m ay be caused by a woman's immune system going into overdrive and wrongly attacking her embryos as if they were foreign bodies.
The Beer Center, which has treated more than 7,000 couples for fertility-related immune problems, claims a pregnancy success rate of 85 per cent within three natural cycles or IVF attempts.
While on holiday with her mother, Julia visited a clinic run by Dr Beer.
She was told that three IVF failures indicated possible immune problems. Blood test results showed that Julia had abnormally high levels of natural "killer" (NK) cells - thought to help keep the body from developing cancer - and harmful antibodies that doctors at the clinic said were attacking her embryos.
"They told me that my body was treating pregnancy as if it was dealing with a cancer and killing my babies before they'd had time to implant in my uterus properly," says Julia.
An added complication was an inherited clotting disorder making her susceptible to developing blood clots in the placenta, which could also endanger her embryos.
The good news, one of the nurses told her, was that they knew exactly how to treat these conditions. With the right medications, she stood an 80 per cent chance of having a baby.
It was in the Eighties that Alan Beer, an academic who had trained in immunology and obstetrics, began to suspect that NK cells produced by an over-active immune system could damage embryos and cause implantation failure.
He tested women who were miscarrying and suffering IVF failure and found that they had abnormally high levels of NK cells.
These, he believed, could attack both the developing embryo and hormones essential to maintain pregnancy.
"When women tell me they're always healthy and never get infections, alarm bells start ringing since it suggests their immune systems are working overtime," says Dr Raphael Stricker, who took over as medical director of the Beer Center after the death of Dr Beer last year.
The theory is that this can be redressed artificially, with drugs.
"Immune therapy for reproductive failure is a temporary measure.
"It's designed to replicate the natural suppression of the immune system at the very beginning of a normal pregnancy," explains Dr Stricker.
"The drugs involved are taken for the least amount of time and prescribed at the lowest doses possible."
For Julia, the Beer Center's theories were a revelation.
"I was shocked that my body might be such a non-baby friendly environment," she says. "Symptoms like the mild arthritis I had in my fingers, which is also apparently an immune problem, now made sense.
"It all sounded too good to be true - but it was worth a try."
She returned home with her first prescription for the drugs, but her GP dismissed the treatment as "unorthodox". ..
However, the consultant she saw at Doncaster Royal Infirmary was, says Julia, more "open-minded" and agreed to prescribe the drugs privately...
From the happy picture, you can see "the rest is history."