Category Archives: Biochemical Pregnancy

Biochemical Pregnancy

Can a personalized approach improve IVF success rates?


Test Tube Baby

This post was written by Robert D. Nerenz, PhD, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.

In the United States, an estimated one in seven couples experience infertility and for many of these couples, in vitro fertilization (IVF) represents their best chance of achieving pregnancy. However, IVF cycles constitute a significant expense (approximately $12,500 per cycle), disrupt patients’ daily lives and only result in a healthy, live birth 30% of the time! Furthermore, the majority of IVF cycles performed in the United States involve the transfer of multiple embryos. This is of particular concern because multiple embryo transfer carries a finite risk of a multiple gestation pregnancy. Bringing multiple infants to term is associated with an increased risk of poor fetal and maternal outcomes including decreased birth weight, increased rate of fetal death, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and preterm labor. Clearly, there is a significant need to improve IVF success rates while also minimizing the likelihood of multiple gestation pregnancies.

One strategy that may accomplish both of these goals is to perform “single embryo transfer” by implanting one embryo that has a high likelihood of producing pregnancy and, ultimately, a live birth. This is the focus of an upcoming symposium at the AACC meeting to be held July 29th at 10:30 am in Atlanta, Georgia. Fertility clinics around the world currently attempt to do this by observing embryos under a microscope and choosing the best embryo on the basis of its physical appearance. Unfortunately, this approach does not provide any information about the embryo’s genetic status. This is an important limitation because aneuploidy (the gain or loss of a chromosome) is the most common cause of pregnancy loss. It is also estimated to occur in ≥10% of clinical pregnancies and becomes more frequent with increasing maternal age.

To ensure that aneuploid embryos are not selected for transfer, several research groups have developed methods collectively known as comprehensive chromosome screening (CCS). CCS involves culturing embryos for 5-6 days, removing a few cells from the trophectoderm (the outer cell layer that develops into the placenta), isolating the DNA from those cells and assessing the copy number of each chromosome using techniques such as quantitative PCR, comparative genomic hybridization, or single nucleotide polymorphism arrays. Following determination of the embryos’ genetic status, only embryos with the normal number of chromosomes are chosen for transfer. In multiple prospective, randomized controlled trials described here and here, CCS has been shown to increase the pregnancy rate and decrease the frequency of multiple gestation pregnancies. As a result, CCS is beginning to make the transition from the research setting to use with patients.

The ability to transfer only euploid embryos represents the most promising application of novel technologies to IVF but ongoing research is focused on other ways to improve the IVF success rate. Many different groups are analyzing the culture medium that embryos are grown in prior to implantation. It is hoped that this will provide information about the embryos’ metabolic health and might help identify which embryos are most likely to result in pregnancy and live birth. Other groups are evaluating endometrial gene expression profiles to assess endometrial receptivity and ultimately determine the best time to perform embryo transfer. While both of these approaches have technical limitations and are not quite ready for primetime, they have the potential to greatly improve our current standard of care and may be ready for clinical use in the near future.

Four reasons for a positive hCG test in the absence of pregnancy


“Why is the pregnancy test positive if she’s not pregnant?”

This is a question I’ve been asked several times and it’s a good one.  The query usually comes from a nurse, doctor, or other healthcare provider after performing a test for human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) and getting a positive or elevated result that they did not anticipate.

Because hCG is a hormone normally produced during pregnancy, hCG tests are used to diagnose the pregnant patient.  That makes it easy to think of hCG tests as “pregnancy tests.”  While that’s not an inaccurate label for them, identifying hCG tests as pregnancy tests gives the impression that is all they are supposed to do.  Technically, hCG tests are designed to qualitatively detect and/or measure the hormone in urine or blood and there are other reasons besides being pregnant that can cause hCG to be present.

I can think of four different reasons why hCG could be present in a non-pregnant woman.

  1. Biochemical pregnancy.  A biochemical pregnancy occurs when a woman becomes pregnant yet has a spontaneous loss of the fetus before she even knew she was pregnant.  If hCG testing occurs before all of the hCG has been metabolized out of the body then hCG can be detected by a lab test.  This situation is not as uncommon as one might think for two reasons.  First, hCG tests are frequently performed in healthcare settings in order to identify the pregnant patient in order to avoid any medical interventions that are potentially harmful to a fetus.  Second, hCG tests are capable of detecting very low concentrations of the hormone.  The high frequency of testing combined with the analytical sensitivity of the tests means that biochemical pregnancies are easily detected.
  2. Pituitary hCG.  Although the placenta normally produces hCG during pregnancy, it can be made by the pituitary gland.  The pituitary gland is a small structure in the brain that secretes many different hormones that function to regulate many endocrine organ systems.  Interestingly, three hormones normally produced by the pituitary gland (thyroid stimulating hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, and luteinizing hormone) are structurally similar to hCG.  Pituitary hCG is more commonly detected in women greater than 55 years of age but can be detected in women as young as 41 years.  Non-pregnant women with pituitary hCG usually have low concentrations of hCG present in the blood and urine.  Importantly, concentrations of hCG produced by the pituitary gland don’t show the rapid increases that occur during pregnancy.
  3. Malignancy.  Cancer cells sometimes make hCG.  While many different types of cancer have been shown to make the hormone, it’s most commonly associated with the gestational trophoblastic diseases and certain types of germ cell tumors of the testes.  Because testicular tumors occur only in men, the question of detecting hCG in the absence of pregnancy is clearly not relevant.
  4. Interfering antibodies.  Some women have antibodies in their blood that can interfere with hCG tests and cause a positive or elevated result in the absence of hCG.  Only hCG tests performed on blood can be affected by this problem because the interfering antibody molecules aren’t normally present in the urine.  This can be a serious problem because some women have been mistakenly diagnosed with cancer due to the false-positive hCG test result and have undergone unnecessary treatments for it.  The frequency of this problem is difficult to know but it’s probably very low.  Over the last several years, the manufacturers of hCG tests have worked to minimize possible interference from these antibodies but nothing can be done to completely eliminate the problem.  When alerted, the laboratory can help to determine if an hCG test result is falsely positive due to this issue.

So, just because an hCG test result is interpreted as positive doesn’t automatically mean that a woman is pregnant.  There are very valid reasons for detecting hCG in the absence of pregnancy.  That said, when the hCG test result doesn’t match the clinical picture, the laboratory should still be asked that question!  When alerted to the discrepancy, the lab can help to investigate the problem and perhaps shed some light on the cause.

There is quite a bit more to say on each of those four causes but I’ll save those comments for future posts.