Freezing Ovaries Before Cancer Treatment May Preserve Fertility : Shots - Health News One-third of women who froze ovarian tissue before undergoing cancer treatment and later had it transplanted back ended up having babies, according to a study of women in Denmark.

Freezing Ovaries Before Cancer Treatment May Preserve Fertility

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now a story about a controversial way to help women preserve their fertility. New research indicates that women can literally put their ovaries on ice to have babies later in life. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports the big question is, which women should do this?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When many women get treated for cancer, one of the side effects is that the chemo and radiation can destroy any chance of having kids. Claus Andersen of Copenhagen University in Denmark says doctors have been trying to find ways to help these women.

CLAUS ANDERSEN: Obviously, the thing that interests them the most is to survive. But immediately after that, they would say that they are really interested in maintaining their fertility.

STEIN: So about a decade ago, doctors like Andersen started trying something that seemed pretty radical, removing all or part of one of their ovaries before they started chemo and radiation.

ANDERSEN: We can cryopreserve that ovary. We will put it into liquid nitrogen, which is minus 200 degrees, which is basically shutting off all biological processes. And then we can keep it there for as long as they want.

STEIN: And transplant it back once the woman is done getting treated. But no one really knew how well this was working. So Andersen and his colleagues decided to take a look at how things have been going in Denmark over the past decade.

ANDERSEN: We are basically having the largest experience with this technique now worldwide. We have transplanted more women than any other country or any other center has.

STEIN: In the latest issue of the journal Human Reproduction, Andersen and his colleagues report what happened to 41 women treated at three hospitals. The success rate was about 30 percent.

ANDERSEN: We have around 1 in 3 women at this point in time who have actually become pregnant and had a child.

STEIN: Some needed help from in vitro fertilization, IVF, but others were able to get pregnant the old-fashioned way.

ANDERSEN: They have a chance to conceive every month. So we have already ongoing pregnancies for more women.

STEIN: Andersen says the transplants have kept working for as long as a decade. And it seems to be working so well that women who still want kids should routinely consider an ovarian transplant when they're facing cancer treatment.

ANDERSEN: So basically, this is the first time that we now start to see this is a valid method, and this do provide fertility to patients.

STEIN: Other experts agree. Glenn Schattman is an associate professor of reproductive medicine at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

GLENN SCHATTMAN: So in this group of patients that had almost a 0 percent chance of achieving a pregnancy, or at least less than a 5 percent chance of achieving a pregnancy after finishing treatment, a 33 percent chance of pregnancy is actually very good. So the take-home message is it's a promising technique which offers the chance of preserving someone's fertility in the future.

STEIN: But some doctors are taking this even further and offering the procedure to women who don't have cancer but are just worried about running out of time to have kids. Sherman Silber runs the Infertility Center of St. Louis.

SHERMAN SILBER: So many women are coming into our clinics at age 42 wanting to have a baby. And it's kind of too late for the vast majority of them. And so I think either for cancer patients or even for women that wish to delay childbearing, this is a very effective technique.

STEIN: Andersen, the Danish scientist, says that may be true someday. But he thinks a lot more research needs to be done first. And Schattman and other fertility experts argue that women have much safer, simpler alternatives, such as freezing some of their eggs or embryos. Rob Stein, NPR News.

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