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Breakthrough For Cancer Survivors

Cancer treatment can put an emotional and physical toll on the body. But for some women, the procedure also threatens their ability to have children.

Women with cancer sometimes have tissue from their ovaries removed and frozen in the hopes of preserving their fertility before treatments. Now, for the first time, doctors have retrieved and fertilized an egg from transplanted ovarian tissue to produce an embryo.

Dr. Kutluk Oktay, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, is the man who made it happen.

Dr. Oktay tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler how this procedure works.

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"It's like creating a jigsaw puzzle with ovarian ovaries except that your 2-year-old can't put this together," he says. "We cut them in tiny pieces and it goes in a little test tube so it can be frozen before the patient goes through menopause-inducing chemo treatment. When the patient wants to get pregnant, we defrost these pieces and implant them underneath her skin. In this case, it was the skin off the abdomen. In three months, hormones kick in. An egg starts to grow. And then we can collect these eggs with a needle prick and then we can fertilize them. Then the patient goes to endometrial fertilization so they can have babies."

Men who go through cancer treatments are lucky, Oktay says, because "freezing sperm has been very successful.

"But in terms of freezing eggs, especially eggs that have grown, it has been very difficult. When you freeze ovaries, you have these immature eggs. They seem to be sturdier, so they survive better. That's why we think this procedure has an advantage over freezing eggs alone."

Oktay has been able to take eggs and fertilize them, getting to an embryo stage but not to a viable pregnancy.

But he notes, "The egg was frozen six years before it was planted and successfully produced an egg in this breast cancer survivor. It reversed her menopause and produced eggs and we were able to generate an egg."

The goal now he says is for his patient to have her first baby.

A lot of women say that, as devastating as having cancer is, losing their fertility is worse.

"It connects a patient who is battling with cancer to her future," Oktay says. "Many women are left after they survive the cancer with severe problems such as infertility and menopause. These could be addressed before going through cancer therapy."

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