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Don't Freak out About the Study Linking IVF With Childhood Cancer

Lisa Milbrand
New research suggests that children conceived by IVF may have a slightly higher risk of developing some rare childhood cancers—but experts say you shouldn't worry.

Don't Freak out About the Study Linking IVF With Childhood Cancer

New research suggests that children conceived by IVF may have a slightly higher risk of developing some rare childhood cancers—but experts say you shouldn't worry.
Shutterstock
Shutterstock

April 2, 2019

In vitro fertilization (IVF) has helped hundreds of thousands of couples become parents—but new research suggests a potential link between the means of conception and that child's health.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, used data on 275,686 children conceived with IVF and 2.27 million kids conceived naturally from 2004 to 2013. It found that within the groups studied, babies conceived via IVF were more than twice as likely to develop embryonic liver tumors, and 41 percent more likely to develop embryonic tumors of the central nervous system—though both types of cancer are still incredibly rare. 

But the researchers—and our own experts—all say that parents shouldn't be overly concerned about the results, as the rates of these cancers are still extremely low—about 200 cases in one million kids. "An increased risk of a rare disease is still rare," says Natasha Burgert, M.D., a pediatrician in Kansas City. "I don't think this report should be of any strong consideration for families considering IVF."

The researchers also can't say for certain that the IVF itself is the reason for the increased incidence of cancer, and suggest that other factors—such as advanced maternal age or maternal health issues—could also play a role in the uptick in cancer diagnosis. 

The results might suggest a little more vigilance in health checks for children conceived via IVF, according to a Reuters interview with lead study author Logan Spector of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. But all experts suggest that just like other studies that compare babies conceived via IVF to their naturally conceived counterparts, there isn't a clear cut cause and effect. 

Dr. Burgert says to keep your own medical history in mind when you're making decisions about fertility treatment and family building. "It is hard to make sweeping generalizations that are relevant to every couple's quest," she says. "It is best to lean into your reproductive endocrinologist to guide you through the latest science that is relevant to your personal history, in order to help make the right reproductive decisions for your family."

And for most families, that choice is still IVF.