A 27-year-old Belgian woman, who was left infertile after chemotherapy, was able to give birth to a healthy baby boy thanks to a groundbreaking procedure that utilized her ovarian tissue frozen 14 years ago.
At age 13, the unidentified woman had portions of her ovaries frozen in the hopes that they would one day allow her to conceive a biological child. While the procedure has worked in women who have already started menstruating, it had yet to be proven to work in children, so she is the first.
The patient's case was explained in a recent article in the journal Human Reproduction. The woman had arrived in Belgium from Congo at age 11 with severe sickle cell anemia. In order to help the girl, doctors advised a stem cell transplant from her sibling.
But to properly transplant the stem cells, the girl’s immune system would have to be totally wiped out with chemotherapy, which can also irrevocably damage the ovaries.
While doctors froze the girls’ ovarian tissue, they were not sure whether it would work or produce eggs when implanted as an adult because of the girl’s young age. Ten years after chemotherapy resulted in her remaining ovary failing, the woman had her frozen ovarian tissue grafted.
As a result, two years later, the woman was able to naturally conceive her child and deliver a baby in November, according to the journal.
Dr. Isabelle Demeestere, lead author on the study and a research associate in the Fertility Clinic and Research Laboratory on Human Reproduction at Erasme Hospital, University Libre of Brussels in Belgium, said more study was needed but that the success of the procedure was an important first step.
"This is an important breakthrough in the field because children are the patients who are most likely to benefit from the procedure in the future,” she said in a statement. "When they are diagnosed with diseases that require treatment that can destroy ovarian function, freezing ovarian tissue is the only available option for preserving their fertility."
Dr. Kutluk Oktay, a fertility specialist and a professor at the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, who helped to pioneer the treatment in the late-1990s, said this success with a young teen's tissue could give hope to many people or parents of young children going through procedures now that can damage their fertility.
"In another sense it shows the importance of this technique in children," said Oktay, who has taken tissue from children as young as 1 in hopes of helping them retain their fertility as they get older.
"Part or whole of an ovary can be removed and frozen in small slivers," he explained.
"It’s a game-changer for women and girls who don’t need to compromise their fertility," while undergoing medical treatments, Collura said.
But she cited one big issue going forward as the expense because, she said, insurance companies will not cover the cost of removing, freezing and restoring ovary tissue.
"[Patients] feel confident that there’s hope they may one day have a biological child," she said. "We need to bring insurance in line with medical [advances.]"