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Researcher to Freeze Women's Ovaries in Effort to Preserve Fertility After Cancer Treatment

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November 28, 2006 | by Marla Paul

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.

Woodruff's experimental technique and other new programs in fertility preservation for male and female cancer patients will be discussed at a free public lecture 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, in the Baldwin Auditorium at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center, 303 E. Superior, Chicago. (For more information and to register for the lecture please call 312-695-1390 or visit www.cancer.northwestern.edu.)

In recognition of the Cancer Center's commitment to providing fertility options to women and men with cancer, it will receive the prestigious Fertile Hope Center of Excellence designation at the lecture. 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 and there are no guarantees that these procedures will be successful in producing human babies. However, women who are interested in cryopreserving one of their ovaries for possible future use and for furthering research are encouraged to participate in this clinical research project.

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. Women interested in this study should discuss it with their oncologists before starting treatment. A detailed description of this unique protocol is available at: http://www.cancer.northwestern.edu/fertilitypreservation/brochure.pdf. Since the protocol supports research, most of the costs will be covered by the study.

Women interested in learning more about this study and their possible eligibility should call (847) 491-3627.

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.