Lifesaving cancer treatments can interfere with a person’s fertility by damaging reproductive organs that produce eggs or sperm.
For women, in vitro fertilization (IVF) with embryo banking before cancer treatment begins is the standard method of fertility preservation. But it is expensive, requires a partner or donor sperm and may delay cancer treatment. Oocyte banking is another standard option. While it does not require sperm, it is considered experimental. It is also expensive and may delay treatment.
Another option is an innovative treatment called ovarian tissue cryopreservation. It is an experimental technique in which ovarian tissue is removed, divided into small strips and frozen for future use. When a woman is ready to get pregnant, ovarian tissue can be placed back into the pelvis to grow and reproduce eggs. Researchers are also working on techniques to isolate and fertilize oocytes from the frozen ovarian tissue so that embryos can be placed back into a patient later.
This would eliminate the possibility of placing tissue with cancer cells back into the body, and it would also allow patients to use gestational carriers if they need a hysterectomy, or if they cannot carry a child as a result of their cancer.
“Freezing ovarian tissue may be better because it can produce hundreds of eggs,” says Emily Jungheim, MD, a Washington University reproductive endocrinologist.
“Compared to the high expense and limited number of tries involved in egg banking or IVF, this technique may offer more oocytes and therefore more tries to get pregnant. It can also be done quickly for patients who cannot delay their cancer treatment.”
There have only been a handful of successful pregnancies using this method to date. Dr. Jungheim is hoping more women will consider donating ovarian tissue to keep research efforts going.
Last year, Barnes-Jewish joined a national collaboration of more than 30 fertility centers across the nation led by Northwestern Memorial in Chicago to study cryopreservation.
Dr. Jungheim says existing knowledge about the technique, combined with the expertise of Siteman Cancer Center oncologists, will help improve women’s chances of having children after cancer.