For years, men have been able to freeze sperm for future use. But no such option existed for women who undergo treatments that damage the ovaries.
Until now there was no hope for these women, but for the first time, through experimental surgery, doctors are working to preserve fertility by taking out the ovaries before treatment and re-implanting them at a later time.
In one of the first surgeries of its kind, Dr. Kutluk Oktay at New York Methodist hospital is transplanting ovaries from a woman's abdomen into her arm.
In theory, it could be anywhere in her body. As long as there is a blood supply, the ovarian tissue will respond normally.
In this case, Dr. Oktay has chosen the arm because it is easy to reach and is easily monitored.
The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, has cancer and needs radiation therapy; this will destroy her ovaries if they remain in her abdomen.
After the ovaries are removed, Dr. Oktay prepares them to be inserted into the arm.
"I'm making little strips so I can insert it under the skin," he says.
The outer layer of the ovaries where the hormones and eggs are produced is removed.
It is then cut into thin strips, and a small tunnel is made in the arm where the strips are inserted.
|Ovarian tissue is transplanted into the arm of a cancer patient.|
The hope is that the tissue transplanted in her arm will function normally, producing hormones and eggs.
An egg can then be removed, fertilized in the lab and inserted into a woman's womb so that she will then be able to bear a child.
With the first patient to undergo similar surgery, it appears to be working. No baby has been produced but the patient does seem to be makin eggs.
"We are planning to do more of these procedures, maybe another half dozen. And if we can show that a majority of these patients [will] get function and a long-lasting function, it can easily become a routine procedure," notes Dr. Oktay.
In some cases, doctors are actually freezing the ovaries of women before they undergo cancer treatments.
Once the treatment is over and successful, then the hope is these women could have their tissue unfrozen and re-implanted anywhere in the body.
This would be a major advance for these young women who faced not only the diagnosis of cancer but also infertility.