Embryo breakthrough for cancer patients

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Using frozen ovaries, a Barcelona hospital offers fertility hope for women with cancer.

16 September 2008

BARCELONA -- Women with cancer often face the risk that their treatment will leave them unable to have children. But a research team at Barcelona's Sant Joan de Déu hospital has obtained the first human embryo in Spain from frozen ovary tissue.

This is only the seventh time that the procedure has been successfully carried out anywhere in the world. Three times the process led to live births, twice in Belgium, and once in Israel.

The team, led by Dr Justo Callejo, worked with a 32-year-old woman with blood cancer. It first carried out an ovarian tissue transplant in March 2001, and fertilized an egg in March 2006.

Last month the hospital finally produced an embryo that it describes as being of "excellent quality".

"The objective of this technique is to recover the possibility that the woman can once again become pregnant", says Callejo. Around 25 percent of women who are diagnosed with cancer have still not reached reproductive age, the gynecologist adds.
"Cancer specialists are increasingly sensitive to the need to maintain women's fertility, and tend to work on the basis of treatments that take this need into account", Callejo says.

The procedure is simpler for men, involving the freezing and storing of their sperm. But for women who want to have children using their own ovaries, the technique is still in the experimental stage.
The Sant Joan de Déu hospital has already frozen ovaries from around 100 patients aged between 10 and 37. Removing the ovary tissue takes just 15 minutes, and the patient can return home the same day. The tissue is then preserved in fragments inside a flask for possible later use in transplants.

But the operation to insert the thawed tissue is more complicated. If all goes well, after around four months, the ovarian tissue tends to recover its function for a couple of months. Researchers around the world are working to develop the best technique that will allow women to give birth after undergoing cancer therapy.

"At the present time, with so few women having been re-implanted, it's not possible to properly assess the real potential of ovary transplants", says Callejo.

The Doctor Peset University hospital in Valencia has also been researching the technique. To date, ovarian tissue was taken from 215 patients aged between 11 and 40, and is stored in the Valencia Transfusion Center.

"It is very important for most women to be able to produce their own child", says Elena Castillo of the Bellvitge University Hospital in Barcelona, who is preparing a doctorate in the social impact of ovarian transplants.

[El Pais / Joan Carles Ambrojo / Expatica]

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