Strong Stuff

updated 05/15/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

René and Norman Danford had been married only a few weeks when they started working at having a baby. René kept close watch on her temperature and charted her ovulation cycles, to no avail. The Baton Rouge couple then turned to artificial insemination but learned Norman had a low sperm count. Next they signed on for in vitro fertilization (IVF). After their third try failed, recalls René, the doctor announced, "There's nothing we can do. You will never carry your own child."

Though devastated, René, 36, was more determined than ever to find some solution. Research on the Internet and discussions with friends led her to Dr. Geoffrey Sher in Las Vegas. With experience gained from helping bring more than 6,000 babies to couples having fertility problems, Sher quickly determined that René's uterine lining was so thin and fibrous, it was difficult for the embryos to become properly implanted. But he had an idea. He had been trying a new technique to plump the lining of women with similar problems. René volunteered for the treatment and 26 days later received a call from Sher's clinic. "Tell me! Tell me!" she cried. "Honey," replied the nurse, "you're pregnant."

The Danfords' son Michael, now 6 months old, is the first newborn formally linked to an experimental procedure using the anti-impotence drug Viagra on women trying to conceive. "The intent was not to show that Viagra will make women pregnant," says Sher, 56. "It was to show that this treatment improves blood flow and thickens the uterine lining." That, he explains, can help the embryo take root and aid in the nurturing of the developing fetus.

Sher's initial test, conducted last year, involved four women and resulted in three pregnancies. Even so, he cautions, "the numbers are too small to make any conclusions." In fact, though his study was published in April in Human Reproduction, a peer-reviewed British journal, some remain skeptical. Without a larger trial, says Dr. Claude Hughes of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, "I'm not going to urge any of my patients to go do this."

Sher himself does not endorse Viagra for every infertile woman. But for someone like René Danford, who Sher says was "a fertility doctor's nightmare—great eggs, great embryos and unable to carry," Viagra may be "the only solution." Four times a day for nine days, Danford was given Viagra in a special vaginal suppository form. Within 24 hours of the first treatment, blood flow to her uterus had doubled. Since the initial test, between 25 and 30 more women have been treated using the same approach. So far there have been no side effects, though Sher warns that women should never use Viagra without a doctor's supervision.

The treatment itself is the result of work Sher pioneered linking an inability to become pregnant to uterine problems, including thin and fibrous linings, the latter condition affecting many women whose mothers took the drug DES from the 1940s through the '70s to prevent miscarriages. "When I came out with this theory in 1990, I got slammed," says Sher. "Today there isn't an IVF program worth its salt that doesn't measure the endometrial lining." Notes Stanford University's Dr. Camran Nezhat, professor of obstetrics and gynecology: "Some things he did originally were considered controversial. But he was right."

Challenging the status quo has been a favorite pastime for Sher, a native South African who as a young doctor moved his family to America in 1979, three years after he first came here, because "I didn't want my children exposed to that atmosphere of prejudice. I'd been pretty outspoken about it and had been warned several times to leave." He became intrigued with the nascent field of IVF while teaching and doing research at the University of North Carolina in 1976, and when he relocated to Reno three years later, he opened the first non-university-affiliated IVF center in the United States, followed by several more. Now living in Las Vegas with his wife, Charlene, 54, a stage actress, Sher, the father of four grown children, also enjoys an extraordinary—and far-flung—extended family. On a recent visit to his optician, Sher was asked by a young clerk who noticed the name on Sher's lab coat, "Are you the Dr. Sher?" When Sher admitted he was, the young man laughed and stuck out his hand. "My mom told me how I got here," he said. "I'm one of your babies."

Nick Charles
Karen Grigsby Bates in Las Vegas and Hilary Hylton in Baton Rouge

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