I have a friend who was struck with cancer in her 20s. While she responded to treatment and recovered without any relapse (and God-willing let’s hope she stays healthy), the chemotherapy treatments rendered her infertile. As I understand it, the eggs are killed by the radiation and in her case the technology to extract them prior to treatment was either unavailable or not proven yet. This is a problem which apparently affects many women, but it is especially harmful to girls who have cancer because it was considered impossible to “harvest” eggs prior to treatment from girls who hadn’t reached puberty.
This week at the conference for the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in France, an Israeli team from Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem announced a breakthrough to “obtain eggs from girls with cancer aged between five and 10 years and then culture them in a dish to make them viable.”
Dr. Ariel Revel, head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Hadassah University Hospital, made the announcement and spoke to reporters about the matter. Israel News via Ynet reports:
While survival rates of childhood cancer continue to improve and have reached 70 to 90 percent, the aggressive chemotherapy needed to fight the growths severely damages the patient’s fertility.
In male patients, sperm samples can be taken and frozen before treatment for future use. Up until this breakthrough, it was believed that female patients before puberty did not have a similar option, since freezing the ovarian cortex, which contains the egg-producing follicles, would destroy the tissue.
The more successful way to harvest eggs is to retrieve individual eggs from the follicles, which are more resistant to extreme cold. Dr Revel’s team was astonished to discover that this was possible in girls as young as five to 10 years old, well before puberty.
“We were able to extract oocytes (cells that later produce eggs) using needle aspiration from very young girls,” said Dr Revel.
“For example, we found seven eggs in a girl of five years old with Wilm’s tumour, eight in an eight year old with Ewing’s sarcoma, and 17 in a 10 year old, also with Ewing’s sarcoma. We were then able to mature the eggs in vitro and freeze them for use in the future,” he explained.
The researchers were able to mature 41 of 130 eggs in vitro which were then frozen.
Obviously, until these girls reach maturity, marry and try to become pregnant (or don’t marry and try to become pregnant), nobody can know whether these eggs will become embryos but Revel believes they would: “We are hopeful that the mature eggs can offer these girls a realistic possibility of preserving their fertility.”
In other, somewhat related news, American university chancellors on a visit to Israel expressed their revulsion of the British academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I say, let the British boycott because it’s their loss.