SCIENTISTS have made “exciting” progress in the development of artificial “ovaries” to help preserve women’s fertility.
Immature eggs have been shown for the first time in a laboratory to survive on ovarian tissue which was removed from cancer patients before treatment and stripped of cells, researchers said.
It is hoped this engineered structure could be re-implanted into women and restore fertility after they have completed chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Scientists from the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, proved the graft worked when using human tissue transplanted into mice.
Experts said the research, presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) annual meeting in Barcelona, “holds much promise for the future”.
Many cancer treatments can damage the ovaries, stopping the body from producing eggs and meaning a woman cannot get pregnant.
Women dealing with a diagnosis can choose to have their eggs frozen, while some doctors may offer to remove or freeze all or part of an ovary so it can be transplanted back after treatment.
However, there is a small chance that grafted ovarian tissue could reintroduce cancer cells.
A “bio-engineered” ovary would reduce this risk, the research team from Rigshospitalet said.
Their experiments used ovarian tissue removed from women trying to preserve their fertility before cancer treatment.
The cells from the tissue were eliminated using chemicals, leaving behind a “bio-engineered scaffold” on which the early-stage egg-containing follicles were reseeded.
Dr Susanne Pors, who presented the research, said: “This is the first time that isolated human follicles have survived in a decellularised human scaffold and, as a proof-of-concept, it could offer a new strategy in fertility preservation without risk of malignant cell recurrence.”
Experiments in which the structure was transplanted into mice showed it could support the survival and growth of the follicles.
Commenting on the research, Professor Nick Macklon, medical director at London Women’s Clinic, said it was an “exciting development”.
“They’ve been able to show that they can then introduce back into that tissue stored follicles and early-growth eggs, that then appear to grow in that material that’s had all the cells removed,” he said.
“And, that this can then be placed back into the body and hopefully allow women to re-establish their cycles to possibly conceive, either naturally or with IVF, while reducing this risk of cancer.”
He said the technique was “likely to develop into something that will be potentially useful”, but said further research was needed to prove it will work in humans.
Stuart Lavery, consultant gynaecologist at Hammersmith Hospital, said “If this is shown to be effective, it offers huge advantages over IVF and egg freezing.
“Because potentially these small pieces of tissue will have thousands of eggs and clearly if it does work, there’s the advantage of then getting pregnant the old-fashioned way.
“We are some years away from that, and so IVF and egg-freezing is here now and will be with us for several years, but if this works it has dramatic potential.”
Professor Adam Balen, from Leeds Fertility at Seacroft Hospital, said: “This is an extremely important advance in the field of fertility preservation.”
He added: “It is still yet to be put into clinical practice but it certainly holds much promise for the future.”