She's the fertility guru that stars like Kate Winslet turn to ... now Zita West is offering hope to childless couples here
How a London expert and a Belfast professor will be helping would-be parents in Belfast this weekend
One is famous for helping the very famous to conceive through healthy living while the other is world renowned for her scientific search for answers as to why couples cannot have a longed-for baby.
Together London fertility-expert-to-the-stars Zita West and Belfast-based Professor of Reproductive Medicine Sheena Lewis are paving the way for a major new breakthrough treatment for childless couples.
Individually, they have each made incredible strides forward in improving the chances of couples having a baby and now, together, they are set to be a formidable force in the fight against infertility.
Zita – who can name the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Stella McCartney and Davina McCall among a long list of celebrity clients – is called 'The Fairy Godmother of Fertility' due to the success of her London clinic, where she takes a holistic approach to helping couples realise their dream of having a family.
The healthy lifestyle through which she helps couples to conceive is the perfect follow-up to a new breakthrough fertility test for men developed after more than 20 years of research by a team at Queen's University, Belfast, led by Sheena.
Sheena, who runs Lewis Fertility Testing – an offshoot from Queen's – is a world leader in the field of male fertility and has helped develop the SpermComet test which, it is believed, will dramatically increase a couple's chances of getting pregnant. It is the first test ever developed to pick up DNA damage in sperm which on its own can prevent pregnancy but until now, was never picked up. Sperm damage can easily be repaired through a healthy lifestyle, which is what makes Zita such a perfect fit.
Sheena (58), a widow from Belfast with three grown-up children, explains: "The test was developed here in Northern Ireland as a result of over 20 years research and is now being used worldwide. We have focused on all sorts of tests to improve diagnosis for men.
"Men have been neglected dreadfully as the focus on fertility has usually been on the woman.
"Around 25–30% of couples have unexplained infertility which is absolutely awful for them. They know they can't have a baby but no one can tell them why.
"Our test can detect problems in men's sperm and, depending on how much damage there is, we can guide them to better treatment.
"Up until now the only test for men was a sperm count but our test looks at the molecular level at DNA, which is the most important part of the sperm for making a baby.
"We can show what percentage of the DNA is damaged and, as it takes three months to make new sperm, through diet and lifestyle changes this damage can be repaired, increasing the chances of pregnancy.
"We have been offering the test to couples, with fantastic results, but it is early days and this is why we are teaming up with Zita as we want to do a proper study to collate the results.
"Working with Zita is a marriage made in heaven as the healthy lifestyle she advocates for couples is what a man needs to improve the quality of his sperm DNA.
"We really need each other – we are the only people who can give a diagnosis and we have identified that Zita's healthy approach works to repair the damage so she can supply the solution.
"We are really excited that we can do it here in Northern Ireland."
The test is also proving invaluable to couples who experience recurring miscarriages where usually the focus again is on the woman.
In terms of its uniqueness, the SpermComet is able to detect damage in 80% of sperm of men attending for infertility investigations, compared with only 15% detection of DNA damage using other tests.
It is also the only test that can measure DNA damage in individual sperm.
In men with less than 25% DNA damage, 33% of couples had a healthy baby, compared with only 13% of couples where the man had more than 50% DNA damage.
For the majority of couples who have had the SpermComet test, the result has been miraculous.
Sheena tells of one man who had experienced five miscarriages with his first partner and another with his second partner. He had the test and discovered he had over 55% sperm DNA damage. He went on antioxidant supplements for four months and he and his partner now have a healthy baby without fertility treatment.
Another couple who had been trying for a baby for six years and had one failed cycle of IVF also had the test. It was discovered the man had 46% DNA damage. After four months on antioxidant supplements, followed by ICSI treatment in which the sperm is injected into the egg, they got pregnant with twins.
"I absolutely feel the pain of these couples, especially the men who always feel they have to be strong for their partner and who we really have neglected," says Sheena.
"It's good to let them know the test exists and the study with Zita will give us the data we need on results to hopefully prevent a lot of heartache for people going through the rollercoaster of the fertility journey."
Zita, in her all-encompassing approach to fertility, has also been using the test at her London clinic and is looking forward to working with Sheena on a new study which they hope to launch by the end of the year.
As a UK's trusted expert on fertility, pregnancy and birth, Zita is also very much a pioneer in the field.
For over 25 years she has worked in the area, is a practising midwife and nutritional advisor as well as an acupuncturist.
Her clinic near Harley Street is a Mecca for couples seeking to boost their fertility, and her products and books – including Zita West's Guide to Getting Pregnant, as well as an active website, www.zitawest.com – all serve to promote her brand.
Zita (58), a mother of two grown-up children, will be making her first trip to Belfast this weekend when she joins Sheena and a number of other fertility experts who will be guest speakers at a special Fertility Information Day being held in the city.
No doubt the first of many visits here once she embarks on her study, she also hopes to have a book signing of her latest publication, Eat Yourself Pregnant, which has a foreword written by Kate Winslet.
This is Zita's first cookery book and combines tips and recipes as she believes the chemistry for baby making starts with nutrition. All of the recipes have been designed to help with digestive health, blood sugar balance, hormonal health, acid/alkaline balance and to create a healthy immune system, the key ingredients to create the perfect environment to conceive.
Eggs and sperm need to be nourished with key nutrients in order to mature, and for fertilisation and implantation to occur.
The environment they grow in and the nutrients they receive enable this to happen.
"Can you eat yourself pregnant? There is so much we now know about diet, nutrients and what foods help or hinder fertility. Women know everything about diets but very little about nutrition," says Zita.
"This book is not about faddy diets or restrictions, but about putting vital nutrients back in your body in a delicious, healthy way. What's even better is that couples can do this together and enjoy planning and eating healthily, with lots of treats. I so often see restrictions that couples put on themselves when it comes to trying and planning for a baby, and the pressure that occurs because of this.
"Cooking and eating should be fun, tasty and nutritious. Preparation is key prior to getting pregnant, and we now know that in those first 12 weeks your growing baby relies on vital nutrients that need to be in place for the developing organs to reach their full potential. There is so much you can do though food and nutrients to help you prepare for pregnancy."
- Eat Yourself Pregnant by Zita West is available now, Nourish Books, £14.99
How to get tickets for information day
- One in six couples has difficulty having a baby: in 40% of these cases, the difficulty is associated with the male
- Healthy sperm is the most important factor for conception to occur
- Damage to sperm DNA (sperm DNA fragmentation) affects every fertility checkpoint and can increase the risk of miscarriage
- Even healthy sperm have some DNA damage, but it's the amount of damage that matters
- The Fertility Information Day run by Infertility UK Network is being held this Saturday, from 9.30am until 4pm, in the Riddel Hall, Belfast. Tickets cost £10 or, for a healthcare professional, £20 with registration online at www.infertilitynetworkuk.com
- Also speaking at the event is Dr Steve Green, head embryologist at Origin Fertility Care, who will be talking about how another new advance in fertility treatment, Primo Vision, is having a statistically significant positive effect on pregnancy success rates