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Cancer patients have new childbirth hopes

Maria Cheng
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

LYON, France ” Doctors have removed eggs from young female cancer patients and ” for the first time ” brought the eggs to maturity before freezing them, giving the girls a better chance to one day have children.

Previously, scientists had thought viable eggs could be obtained only from girls who had undergone puberty.

“We didn’t expect young girls to have eggs that could withstand the process of maturation,” which involves adding hormones, said Dr. Ariel Revel, who led the research at the Hadassah University Hospital in Israel.

The research will be presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Lyon, France.

Revel’s technique involved surgically removing the eggs and then artificially maturing them in a laboratory, with the idea of re-implanting them one day should the patient wish to have children.

To obtain the eggs, Revel and his colleagues performed surgery on 18 patients ages 5 to 20. Of 167 eggs, 41 were successfully matured, including some from prepubescent donors. They were then indistinguishable from those of older women, Revel said Monday.

“Any advance that enables young women to have children one day after having cancer is positive,” said Simon Davies, head of Teenage Cancer Trust, a charity based in Britain. Davies was not linked to the research.

But as the extraction of eggs is an invasive operation, Davies said more information was needed about potential risks to young women fighting cancer. There might also be ethical concerns, as the decision to remove eggs from very young girls would likely be made by the parents, not the patient.

Experts think cancer treatments can affect female fertility. Chemotherapy usually affects all body cells, attacking not only the cancer, but other areas including the ovaries ” for which it is often deadly.

Unlike men, who produce sperm throughout their lifetime, women only have a set number of eggs from their birth, which decreases as they age. Young girls who undergo aggressive chemotherapy treatments often experience a sharp drop in the number of their eggs, and some become completely infertile.

The cure rate for childhood cancer can be as high as 90 percent, and doctors are investigating options for preserving patients’ fertility. Another experimental method involves removing a thin layer of ovarian tissue for re-implantation later, but trials so far have resulted in only a few pregnancies worldwide.

“The research by Dr. Revel is an important option for prepubescent girls who may otherwise lose the ability to have children,” said Dr. Hananel Holzer, an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at McGill University in Montreal.

Holzer, who was not connected to Revel’s study, said immature eggs from adult women have previously been matured in the laboratory, but until now, no one had ever tried it with eggs from young girls.

The real test will come when the girls on whom the treatment was performed might be ready to have children. “We will only know the final chapter of this story in about 10 years, when we hope to close the circle of this research,” Revel said.

None of the eggs has been thawed, and experts are unsure if the process of artificial insemination could result in other problems such as chromosomal abnormalities. Additional surveillance, such as amniocentesis screenings to check the baby’s development, would probably be necessary.

In related work presented Monday at Lyon, doctors announced that the first baby to be created from an adult woman’s egg that had been frozen, thawed and then fertilized, was born in Canada. That research, however, involved women with no history of cancer.


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