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Development of Technique that Protects Fertility of Female Cancer Patients

An important breakthrough has been achieved in the development of a technique to enable women who are getting treated for cancer to keep their fertility intact. Right now, many women who are getting cancer treatment lose their ability to reproduce.

The research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Common Fund as a part of an NIH Roadmap Interdisciplinary Research Consortium initiative. The research is managed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Background of the research
The research seeks to end the woes of cancer diagnosed women who have to undergo fertility-destroying treatment. If the whole research is successful and the technique is fully developed, it will provide such women an option of reproduction after finishing the treatment.

Men who face fertility-ending cancer treatment can freeze their sperm for use later. But women do not have such an option, because eggs do not survive freezing and thawing.

Though some methods have been developed to store ovaries and implant them back into the woman’s body when she is ready to have children, these have side effects. They can result in recurrence of the cancer.

Another option for women cancer patients is to collect their ovaries, fertilize them with sperm and freeze the resulting embryos. But this is not acceptable to most women as they have to choose the father immediately.

How the experiment was carried out
The technique considered in this experiment involves the follicle, a tiny sac-like structure in the ovary which contains the immature egg. The researchers collected secondary follicles, which are at an intermediate stage of growth, from the ovarian tissues of 14 cancer patients.

In earlier experiments, these follicles were set on a flat surface. These experiments failed to produce good quality eggs.

The present researchers believed that the flat surface did not resemble the conditions inside the human body. So they set the follicle in a three dimensional structure.

The follicle was suspended in a three dimensional matrix of a gelatin called alginate. They flushed the follicle with hormones and other growth factors, so that the environment was completely like it would be in a woman’s womb.

They did this for 30 days. During this time, the follicle grew and released hormones. At the end of 30 days, the immature egg had grown into a healthy mature egg, just as it would inside a woman’s body.

The accomplishment only represents the completion of the first of three steps needed to preserve a woman’s fertility after cancer treatment. For the next step, researchers have to induce the egg’s final division, such that it contains only half the genetic material of its predecessors. Then, the researchers must be able to freeze and thaw human follicles before growing them in culture.

Consequences of the successful experiment.

  • If the technique is fully developed, it will give an option to young female cancer patients who are not ready to start a family to do so in the future.
  • The observations of this experiment may also help scientists discover treatment for infertility caused by factors other than cancer.

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