Columbia Fertility Takes Pain and Stress Out of Frequent Blood Draws
Innovative lab technique developed at center makes fertility treatment easier
Frequent blood draws have been a dreaded feature of IVF for decades. To retrieve eggs for in vitro fertilization (IVF), a patient must endure a half-dozen or more blood draws over two weeks to measure hormone levels and determine when the eggs are ready to be collected.
For Mariel Boyd, who recently completed 16 weeks of intravenous chemotherapy for breast cancer, the frequent blood draws were excruciating. “By the time I was done with chemo, my veins were shot,” says Boyd, who worked with Columbia University’s Fertility Center to store her eggs for use after her cancer treatment. “I would apologize to the phlebotomist for having to search for a good vein in my arm.”
Then one day, the phlebotomist gave Boyd a painless alternative: a kit containing a new microneedle device and other items that patients can use at home to get their own blood sample.
For the rest of the monitoring period, Boyd collected her own blood at home (no refrigeration necessary), dropping off the sample later the same day.
“This method for drawing blood was truly painless,” Boyd says. “It took some stress out of what is already a stressful process.”
Columbia fertility innovation
Offering the new blood collection kit—free for patients at Columbia University’s Fertility Center—is one of several innovations to improve the quality of care and the overall patient experience, including a rapid, low-cost test to analyze embryo quality and a sperm collection kit that male partners can use in the privacy of their own home.
The microneedle device, a touch-activated system developed by YourBio Health and initially used in research labs, recently gained FDA clearance for use in clinical settings. “When we learned about the device, we saw a clear opportunity to help make a routine but distressing part of fertility treatment a lot easier for patients like Mariel who have difficulty with needlesticks or those who are afraid of needles,” says Zev Williams, MD, PhD, director of the Columbia University Fertility Center.
But the blood volume obtained with the device is too small to get an accurate reading of hormone levels with standard laboratory equipment. The microneedle device, which pierces the skin with tiny hair-like projections, yields less than a few drops of blood—about one-tenth the amount obtained with an ordinary blood draw.
Columbia’s fertility researchers had a ready solution. They had previously developed a method to detect trace amounts of a molecule linked to preeclampsia in a pregnant woman’s blood. Using a similar technique, the researchers were able to measure hormone levels that indicate egg readiness in the tiny blood sample. The method increases the volume of material in the sample so that it can be analyzed with standard assays, while keeping hormone levels within an accurate range of detection. The results, when compared to the traditional methods, are the same.
Patients who used the new method said it was painless (in a small pilot study at Columbia University, the average pain score was less than 1 on a scale of 1 to10).
No more fear
The new pain-free blood-draw technique has now been used with dozens of Columbia fertility patients, including Gjilberta Lucaj, who has an extreme fear of needles.
Previous IVF attempts had also taken a toll. “My veins became so scarred at one point, the phlebotomist started taking blood from the veins in my hand,” Lucaj says.
Then, a few months ago, Lucaj’s doctor handed her the microneedle collection kit.
“The device is so easy to use and you don’t really feel it,” says Lucaj, who is telling all of her doctors about the method in hopes of seeing more clinical applications soon. “Taking blood this way could make it much easier for some women to continue with their journey through fertility treatment.”
Zev Williams, MD, PhD, is the Wendy D. Havens Associate Professor of Women’s Health in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.