Program to freeze women's ovaries to preserve fertility after cancer

CHICAGO --- The Center for Reproductive Research at Northwestern University is launching a new, experimental research program for young women who may be at risk to lose their ovarian function and fertility following treatment for cancer.

The program, in which a woman's ovary is removed and frozen for possible future use, is being led by Teresa Woodruff, Ph.D., associate director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and executive director of the Institute for Women's Health Research at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. The long-term goal of the program is to be able to extract and mature eggs from cryopreserved (frozen) ovarian tissues to initiate pregnancies once cancer treatment has been completed.

"This breakthrough may permit not only the potential preservation of fertility options for women and girls with cancer, but also can be applied to normal in vitro fertilization patients. This procedure, when developed, could radically change the way infertility is viewed, reduce and eliminate embryo storage and provide better options for women who do not respond to hormonal therapy, " said Woodruff.

In recognition of the Cancer Center's commitment to providing fertility options to women and men with cancer, it has been recognized as a Fertile Hope Center of Excellence, the fifth medical center in the country to receive this designation. Fertile Hope is a non-profit organization that assists cancer patients faced with infertility.

Woodruff's research involves developing new techniques for the long- term preservation of human ovarian tissue. Scientists are exploring ways to remove immature eggs from this tissue and to mature them in the laboratory so that they can potentially be fertilized at a later date.

At this time, the only pregnancies resulting from this research are in mice. Eligible participants will have one ovary surgically removed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in an outpatient procedure called a laparoscopy before starting cancer treatment. Eighty percent of the ovary will be preserved for the patient's future use and 20 percent will be used by researchers to explore ways to extract and develop immature eggs.

Scientists and physicians from Northwestern are developing a new discipline described as oncofertility and are organizing a collaboration of national experts that include biophysicists, biomaterials biologists, clinical oncologists, reproductive biologists, psychologists, ethicists and legal scholars. The objectives of oncofertility are to better understand the impact of cancer treatment on fertility, to identify new technologies to preserve fertility and to explore the psychosocial role fertility has on survivorship.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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