A new sperm-washing procedure has allowed a woman and her HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)-positive husband to conceive a baby without passing the virus to either the fetus or the mother. The first British couple to benefit from this technique conceived two weeks ago after waiting five years for the technique to be perfected. Sperm-washing involves the mixing of semen with a dense fluid called percol, which is then placed in a centrifuge where the force pushes the sperm through the fluid leaving the infected semen plasma and non-sperm cells floating on top. The AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) virus (HIV) does not attach itself to sperm but is contained in the surrounding fluid and non-sperm cells.
The 16 couples who are taking part in the 3 month-long programme will pay £1,441 for the first insemination. Further attempts will cost £971 each. The procedure is not available on the NHS. Dr Carole Gilling-Smith, the programme's leading gynaecologist and fertility specialist, said the technique is a risk-reduction treatment that had undergone rigorous trials but stressed that no method was entirely risk-free.
The only place to offer sperm-washing in the UK - London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital - asks couples to sign a consent form indicating they realise there is still a tiny risk of infection. The technique was first developed 10 years ago in Italy by Dr Augusto Semprini who has, to date, treated more than 2,000 women and achieved 200 births without transmitting the AIDS virus. But the procedure was not undertaken in the UK until April this year - until doctors at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital had carried out a year-long study.