Cryopreservation and vitrification of gametes are two different methods employed in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) for freezing human eggs, sperm, and embryos. Both procedures share a common goal: to keep the cells intact, so that they are available for later use.
Cryopreservation vs. vitrification
When Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) began to be popular, freezing or cryopreservation, also known as slow freezing, was the only technique available. Since this method offered high success rates in the case of sperm cryopreservation, today it continues to be the technique used for preserving sperm cells.
As regards oocytes and embryos, however, due to the larger size of their cells, their structure and functionality were compromised after the freezing-thawing process. Subsequently, the survival rates were too low, and this is the reason why, from that moment onwards, research focused on the pursue of a method that allowed us to improve the success rates.
That is how the so-called vitrification method, also known as fast freezing, was born, which is the technique used nowadays for the cryopreservation of unfertilized eggs and embryos.
The birth of the vitrification method translated into a major step forward in the field of Assisted Reproduction, as it improved the survival rates of both oocytes and embryos, thereby avoiding the loss of quality caused after the thawing process.
Vitrification consists in freezing or cryopreserving eggs and embryos with the minimum volume and ultra-rapidly. By doing this, we can prevent the formation of intracellular ice, which can damage the inner parts of the cells to a large extent.
With the vitrification technique, however, the concentration of cryoprotectant necessary for causing the dehydration of cells should be higher, which can be toxic. This is the reason why adjusting the exposure times as accurately as possible is crucial.
Provided that the cells are not exposed longer than necessary to cryoprotectants, vitrification offers a wide range of advantages. The following table shows a comparison between the outcomes and differences between both cryopreservation methods:
To proceed with egg vitrification, firstly it is necessary to replace the liquid contained within the oocytes with a substance called cryoprotectant, which role is to protect the inner cells of the unfertilized eggs from low temperatures.
Thus, to switch from the culture temperature (37°C) to the temperature necessary for cryopreserving the egg cells (-196°C), they go through different cryopreservation media that contain an increasing concentration of cryoprotectant.
The following is a diagram displaying the vitrification process step by step. To be precise, what you can see in the picture below is how the process works with the Cyrotop system, the most widely used nowadays. Nevertheless, there exist other methods, such as CryoTip, though its use is less common. In any case, the process followed is quite similar.
With Cryotop—or whatever the system of choice—the egg cells are preserved in tanks containing liquid nitrogen (N2) until they are necessary for use in future IVF cycles. That is the moment when they will be thawed.
Thawing is the opposite process. It involves switching from the cooling temperature to the culture temperature, and then putting them in different media that will allow us to modify their contents, thereby removing the concentration of cryoprotectant.
If you want to learn more about this process, we recommend that you visit the following post: Egg vitrification.
Classical cryopreservation or slow freezing reduced dramatically the quality of the oocytes, as the thawing process damaged the inner parts of the egg cell. Such damage reduced considerably the recovery potential, which made it very difficult for fertilization to occur and result in an embryo. This represents a huge improvement, as it allows for fertility preservation, and at the same time improves the accuracy of the egg donation process.
Female fertility preservation
The lifestyle and socio-economic situation of today’s society have left many women no alternative but to delay their biological clock. Keeping in mind that a woman’s pregnancy rate diminishes over time, egg vitrification translates into a major advantage for them. Thanks to the vitrification method, the eggs that were saved present almost the same quality as before vitrification. In other words, it is almost as if they have never been frozen.
Also, this method allows a great number of cancer patients, women who need a special treatment or medical intervention that could damage their eggs to become mothers.
When the method used for cryopreservation was slow freezing, only fresh eggs could be used in donor-egg IVF cycles, as a great number of oocytes were at risk of being unusable after the thawing process. In addition, fresh donor cycles are not always feasible, as they require synchronization between the menstrual cycles of the egg donor and the recipient.
Egg vitrification has allowed us to optimize the egg donation process, offering, among other improvements, the chance to choose egg sharing as an alternative option. It involves using the oocytes from a single donor for the cycle of several recipients, which reduces the cost of the treatment, and allows us to make the most out of all the eggs collected from the same donor.
The same applies with embryos, since they are considered to be large cells as well. Thanks to ultra-rapid freezing or fast freezing, no damage is caused to their cell structures, which means that they continue growing and dividing with normality after being thawed.
The cryopreservation of embryos is a major advantage because it allows couples to store their unused, high-quality embryos after an IVF cycle for later use, without the need for the woman to undergo another ovarian stimulation cycle.
Moreover, vitrification is also a necessary procedure prior to embryo donation and adoption. This fertility treatment involves a couple who decides to donate their excess embryos after an IVF cycle to give another couple the chance to use them for starting a family. See also: What is embryo donation and adoption?
The process of embryo vitrification works similarly to that followed for egg vitrification. However, if you want to learn more, do not miss this post: Embryo vitrification, how does it work?
Cryopreservation of sperm
Since sperms are very small cells, their reduced volume prevents the intracellular formation of ice crystals, which could damage their structure.
This is the reason why, contrary to what happens with embryos and egg cells, slow freezing procedures work well and continue to be used for freezing sperm samples.
Due to the simplicity of the procedure itself, and also because of its reduced cost, classical cryopreservation or slow freezing is still used when it comes to freezing sperm. The survival rates with this method are high, and their quality is almost as good as before being frozen.
Need more information? Read more here: Cryopreservation of sperm.
Costs and financing options
More often than not, fertility clinics do not include the cost of gamete and/or embryo cryopreservation and vitrification procedures when they give patients an initial quotation for IVF. For this reason, you are recommended to get as much information as possible beforehand regarding the approximate costs of these techniques.
Even though fees vary per clinic and process followed for collecting and storing the samples, the simplest and cheapest option is sperm cryopreservation, which price ranges from $1,000 to $1,200. The breakdown of these fees includes the first appointment, blood draw, and an approximate annual storage fee of $250-450.
On the other hand, both egg and embryo vitrification are more complex techniques than sperm freezing, and subsequently more expensive. Thus, while egg vitrification can cost about $6,000-10,000—plus a storage fee of $800 per year approximately—, the cost of embryo vitrification services is $700-800 plus a storage fee per year of $250.
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FAQs from users
Can I still freeze my eggs at 40?
Egg quality diminishes as the woman ages. Such decrease is more apparent from age 35, and that is the reason why the general recommendation is to cryopreserve them before this age. By doing this, their quality will be higher, and subsequently their survival rates, and the chances of getting pregnant in the future.
Can you freeze sperm at home for later use?
Although it is true that there are collection and storage kits that allow men to collect their sperm specimens at home, they are not intended for storage in one’s kitchen freezer, but for storage in an andrology or fertility clinic, or in a sperm bank.
Freezing sperm and getting a vasectomy, is it possible?
If you have considered a permanent form of birth control such as vasectomy, you are recommended to be completely sure that you do not want to have kids—or any more kids. However, if this is not your case but you still want to undergo the procedure, a possible backup plan might be sperm cryopreservation. This would allow you to have children later via intrauterine insemination (IUI) or IVF.
Suggested for you
If you are reading this because you are considering preserving your fertility, you might be interested in visiting the following article: Fertility preservation: cost and options.
Also, in cases of egg donation, one can choose between undergoing a fresh or a frozen cycle, as explained above. Wondering whether there is a huge difference between these two options? Clear your doubts here: Frozen donor eggs vs. fresh donor eggs.