Easier IVF alternative for many

A woman holding a pregnancy test and looking happy.
The Lipiodol treatment has been shown to help as many as 40% of infertile woman who would otherwise have had no alternatives to IVF.
Credit: Tom Merton / Getty

Flushing out fallopian tubes with treated poppy seed oil has been proven to boost fertility in women, according to a new study.

In a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from the Netherlands and Australia write that the technique, which has been used for more than a century, provides an alternative to IVF.

And lead author Ben Mol, from the University of Adelaide, says the treatment is much cheaper than IVF, less of a burden on the patient, and has effects that may be long-lasting.

Fallopian tubes are often the culprit when it comes to women’s infertility. When they’re blocked, it prevents a woman’s fertilised egg from being transported to the uterus.

IVF is a popular solution to this problem, Mol explains, and this old-fashioned poppy-seed-oil procedure has ebbed in popularity over the years.

“We needed a decisive study to assess how big the treatment effect was, and I think the results are quite impressive,” he says.

More than 1100 women between the ages of 18 and 39 were involved in the trial, and 40% of infertile women treated with the oil-based solution had successful pregnancies in the next six months.

The research team also tried water-based solutions, but they weren’t as effective: only 29% of infertile women in this group fell pregnant.

So how does it work?

Mol speculates that flushing out fallopian tubes is somewhat like a doctor removing a buildup of earwax so a patient can hear better. The poppy seed oil would clear the tubes of any debris hindering fertility, though Mol says the mechanism isn’t yet fully understood.

The medium – called Lipiodol Ultra Fluid, which is an iodised solution of fatty acids derived from poppy seeds – is inserted into the uterus through the vagina, and its effects are watched through a monitor.

If the fluid flows into the abdomen, it shows that the fallopian tubes are open and in working order.

“I think the most important thing is that women are informed about this type of procedure before they go into IVF,” Mol says.

He adds that since the cost of IVF treatment is partially covered by Medicare in Australia, “there’s definitely a societal issue at stake with the use of public resources, and we can reduce that by using this technique”.

After Mol began his research, he discovered that he owes his own existence to the procedure. His mother could not conceive for nine years until she had her fallopian tubes treated in this way in the 1960s.

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