Ouarda Touirat, who was infertile after she underwent chemotherapy due to Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1997, gave birth Thursday night following the ground-breaking procedure that doctors say could one day allow women to delay motherhood beyond menopause.
"I am very happy, it's what I always wanted," said Touirat, who presented her healthy 8-pound, 3-ounce baby, Tamara, at a news conference at Brussels' Cliniques Universitaires Saint-Luc hospital.
"I was crying at first, it's a dream ... a big miracle," said the 32-year old mother.
Dr. Jaques Donnez cut ovarian tissue from Touirat before she underwent chemotherapy, then froze it in liquid nitrogen. Five years after she was cleared of cancer, the tissue was grafted back onto her fallopian tubes, allowing for a natural pregnancy.
"This is the first time that the tissue was cryo-preserved, removed before chemotherapy and was successfully implanted," said Donnez, head of the Department of Gynecology and Andrology at the hospital. "It is a big message of hope for all women with cancer who have to go and have to have chemotherapy."
News of the procedure was published in the British medical journal The Lancet on Friday.
"When I proposed the ovarian graft to the patient, we had no idea it was working or not, we just ... (had) experimental studies in animals," Donnez said.
He said 146 women were undergoing the same procedure, "but Mrs. Touirat was one of the first in 1997 who has undergone ... the cryopreservation."
"Several lines of evidence lend support to our assertion that the origin of the pregnancy was the autotransplanted ... tissue," the researchers wrote in the journal.
Experts in the field were cautious about the report, however, saying there was a small chance the baby came from existing ovaries rather than the transplanted tissue.
Donnez said doctors from Catholic University in Louvain, Belgium, made a strong case that the birth resulted from the transplant.
"It cannot be proved with 100 percent certainty (that the pregnancy came from the graft) because ovulation from the transplant was calculated from temperature, but was not confirmed," said Dr. Kutluk Oktay, an expert who was not involved with the operation but has conducted much of the key research in the field.
Even though the woman's remaining ovarian tissue stopped working after the cancer treatment, it recovered and she ovulated three years later, which indicates it's possible that the native ovaries could have ovulated again to produce the baby, Oktay said.
Oktay, a reproductive endocrinologist from Cornell University, said the result would have been definitive if the researchers had tracked the transplanted tissue on a daily basis to verify that the follicle they saw early in the process released an egg and that this was the egg that was fertilized.
Alternatively, if the egg had been harvested from the transplanted tissue and fertilized in a lab before being implanted in the womb, as in normal fertility treatment, the technique would be proven, he said.
Donnez was optimistic the procedure would be made easier in the years ahead thanks to advances, meaning more women could be given the choice of having a baby.
He said the treatment was not very expensive, adding it was "much less expensive than in-vitro fertilization."
Donnez said health authorities should make it "a medical legal obligation" to offer women who have to undergo chemotherapy the option for fertility preservation.
"This is the way to go," Donnez said. "Because of the progress ... made by medicine, more and more women are survivors of cancer."
By Constant Brand