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Conceiving Hope

Singapore’s ‘father’ of IVF Professor Ng Soon Chye on birthing new treatments

DSC_7678Professor Ng Soon Chye cuts a fatherly figure. From his distinguished looks to his confident yet affable manner, he puts you at ease immediately. Which is only to be expected, considering his long history in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (O & G), and his specialty, reproductive medicine. Helping couples conceive is a delicate task, and requires trust in your doctor – no problem for Professor Ng, one would imagine.

Professor Ng certainly is a good man to trust with your future family. A pioneer of infertility treatment techniques, he developed many ideas on his own and is hailed as one of the founding fathers of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). When told this, Professor Ng good-naturedly guffawed, “That just goes to show how much grey hair I have!”

Those grey hairs signify decades of quietly working – researching and refining techniques. It is apt that Professor Ng’s other passion is in bird-watching. “From bird-watching, you can develop discipline and patience to wait and observe,” muses Professor Ng. “Wildlife photographers spend most of their life in nature just to capture that one piece of fantastic footage. Most people don’t realise that this takes a lot of effort.”

Professor Ng has had the satisfaction of seeing his efforts bear fruit, many times over. In his cosy office at Sincere IVF Center, Professor Ng guides us through his memories and milestones over the years.

Ezyhealth: Why did you decide to specialise in reproductive medicine?

Professor Ng: I decide to go into O & G because it gives you such a happy feeling to deliver the babies, unlike say, oncology where the outcomes are usually more depressive. O & G is a good mix of medicine and surgery.

At the time when I was just about to take my final exams, the first test tube baby Louise Brown had just been born and so there was a lot of interest in IVF. My boss in KK Hospital then, the late Professor Ratnam, wanted to go into that field. KK Hospital was doing a lot of work in infertility then and I got to be a part of that as a university trainee – actually, I was the very last university trainee accepted! Professor Ratnam advised me to consider the field of infertility. It was fascinating and truly a journey of discovery when I began to specialise in reproductive medicine.

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Professor Ng with Mr Samuel Lee – Asia’s first IVF baby, born in 1983

Ezyhealth: You started your own IVF programme in 1982, leading to the conception and delivery of Asia’s first IVF baby, Samuel. That must have been quite an experience! How did you feel throughout the whole process?

Professor Ng: Oh yes, that was really exciting! Samuel was our fourth IVF cycle attempt. I didn’t want to start the clinical programme until I was very sure everything was going smoothly with our laboratory. I did all the work on my own – I was both the embryologist and the clinician. When we got the pregnancy, it was a huge achievement that I was very proud of. And finally when it came time for the delivery, we were of course very excited. We saw this egg develop into an embryo and then into a baby.

Ezyhealth: You’ve also pioneered other techniques, such as SUZI (Sub-Zona Insemination) and ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection). What kind of work was involved in bringing these to fruition?

Professor Ng: Most importantly, I had a keen interest in laboratory work and techniques like micro-manipulation. Any embryologist will tell you that these are techniques that you really must develop a passion for. Back then, not many techniques for treating infertility existed. In fact, I was one of the first to develop new techniques and approaches. Of course, some of these techniques had already been used partially in animal work, so I had to adapt them for humans. In a sense, many techniques are not completely ‘new’, they’re all related in one way or another. You just need a lot of creativity, and need to think out of the box – think laterally!

Ezyhealth: Sincere IVF Center prides itself on having the most advanced technology and comprehensive packages. How do you intend to keep offering the latest advances to patients?

Professor Ng: I’ve pioneered a lot of things and there have been a good number of success stories. Years ago, I was free to develop new techniques as the environment was less restrictive, so the research and advances in treating infertility were able to grow. We were the first in Asia for many things. Now, however, the environment is different. It’s a lot more restrictive. That’s not a bad thing – we want to protect the patients – but it does slow progress.

Neighbouring countries are catching up on new technology. For example, Thailand offers many services. In Malaysia, they can do techniques like sexing (determining the sex of the embryo) and social egg freezing, which is not allowed here. More patients are going overseas seeking to try new techniques which are not allowed in Singapore.

To help our patients, we will have a new centre in Johor (Medini, Iskandar). The services to be provided will need to be confirmed as we need to comply with Malaysian regulations. We will have a committee to screen patients if there is a request for sexing or Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis and Screening (PGS). PGS will only be done when warranted, such as for older patients or those with a history of failed IVF attempts. We also have plans to expand into the region.

DSC_7715Ezyhealth: What does the IVF process involve for patients?

Professor Ng: Basically, it involves stimulating the female patients for eggs using hormone therapy and retrieving the eggs in a surgery. We then fertilise the eggs with the sperms and implant the embryos after five days. Excess eggs will be frozen. For patients with a low sperm count, surgery will be done to retrieve the sperms.

Ezyhealth: Sincere IVF Center also sees international patients. Why do your international patients prefer to come to you as opposed to being treated in their own countries?

Professor Ng: Most of the patients that come over have already tried IVF in their home countries but have met with no success. Some patients say, since they can afford to go overseas for treatment, they would go to the best IVF centre.

Ezyhealth: What is a typical day at the Center like for you?

Professor Ng: As you can see, it’s busy, busy, busy! Normally, I start the day relatively early, at 6am. That’s because I send my son to the hospital. He’s now a house officer. After that, I come over my clinic to clear work, and see patients. I spend 50% of my time in Gleneagles, 50% in Sincere – although I think lately, I’ve been spending more and more time in Sincere. By the time I finish it’s around late evening. I’m trying to cut down on my Obstetrics cases and focus more on Gynaecology. It’s time to slow down.

Ezyhealth: Are there any misconceptions about IVF that you frequently hear from your patients?

Professor Ng: A lot of people think IVF is the solution, you walk in with a problem and walk out with a baby. They need to know what IVF involves and the true success rate. Although Sincere IVF Center has a high success rate and good clinical programmes, cases such as older patients still have a high failure rate. All of them come in with hope, but they have to understand that the risk is there and success is not guaranteed.

Another thing is that patients may have their own ideas of how to proceed and may not listen to advice from the doctor. Some patients are stubborn, they just want us to solve their problems and to see results.

Ezyhealth: Do you have any advice for couples on getting pregnant?

Professor Ng: The major thing is not to wait too late to see a doctor, especially for females. Even if you freeze your eggs, you must freeze early to maintain the age of the eggs. For example, if you really want to develop your career first to be financially prepared to give a better environment for your child, you can freeze at 30 and get pregnant at 40, then your chances of pregnancy are closer to that of a 30-year-old, which would be much higher.

Ezyhealth: Besides practising at the Center and doing research work, you also find time to lecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Why do you still choose to lecture despite the heavy demands on your time?

Professor Ng: I used to lecture at NUS and NTU (Nanyang Technological University). These days I lecture less at NUS, and more at international conferences. It stems from my desire to spread the knowledge. I think this is part of my duty: To learn, teach, and treat.

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Melanie Sim and Jessyln Lau
Posted by ezyhealth on Feb 3 2015. Filed under Medical Express. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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