A simplified lab can slash the cost of in-vitro fertilisation treatment to around 200 euros ($256), offering hope to millions of infertile couples in the developing world, a conference heard on Monday.
The cost would be just 10 to 15 percent of western-style IVF programmes, according to the Belgian team behind the project.
Their approach uses a scaled-down version of the typical IVF lab, using a simple two-tube system to replace special carbon dioxide (CO2) incubators, medical gas and air purification systems in which to culture the embryo in a lab dish.
The technique has been tried in Belgium on IVF patients under the age of 36 where there were at least eight eggs available for fertilisation, according to the presentation at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) annual conference in London.
When doctors compared low-cost IVF with conventional lab procedures, they found that the quality of the embryo and the chance of a successful pregnancy were comparable.
So far 12 healthy "low-cost" babies have been born.
"Our initial results are proof of principle that a simplified culture system designed for developing countries can offer affordable and successful opportunities for infertility treatment where IVF is the only solution," said Elke Klerkx of the Genk Institute for Fertility Technology.
"This is a major step towards universal fertility care... an important breakthrough in terms of human rights, equity and social justice."
In rich countries, a top-flight IVF system costs between 1.5 and three million euros, but a low-cost equivalent would be less than 300,000 euros.
After this proof-of-principle study, Genk plans to complete construction of a low-cost centre by November and provide training for clinics for developing countries, said Klerkx.
More than five million IVF babies have been born since the first, Louise Brown, in 1978.
But the high cost of treatment is a barrier in developing countries, where infertile women may well face stigma, abuse and ostracism.
"Infertility care is probably the most neglected health-care problem of developing countries, affecting more than two million couples according to the WHO," said Klerkx.