As the field of medicine has continually advanced, more and more children (now approximately 80%) are surviving cancer diagnoses. It’s amazing. It also means that researchers are able to focus more of their energy on improving the quality of life of cancer survivors.
At the University of Pittsburgh, researchers have been specifically evaluating ways to preserve the fertility of children who have battled cancer. Infertility is a fairly common side effect of chemotherapy/radiation. For adults, eggs or sperm can be frozen so that the patient has the option of having a child later in life. But for children, this option isn’t available. Researchers explain that not only is fertility a medical issue, it can also have psychological effects on the patient.
Miraculously, they’ve successfully solved the issue in monkeys, as indicated by the healthy birth of a baby monkey they’ve named Grady.
The Birth of Grady
Researchers at Pittsburgh had the idea to freeze testicular tissue, which contains the cells used to produce sperm, and then insert them back under the skin later in life. They believed that this tissue, if frozen, may still be able to produce sperm once transplanted back into the patient.
They began a study using five rhesus monkeys who had yet to go through puberty. All of the transplanted tissues produced sperm like normal. With this sperm, 11 embryos were created and implanted into 6 different female monkeys. One of these monkeys became pregnant, and last April, gave birth to a healthy, normal, baby.
Potential in Humans
Since monkeys are the closest animal on the evolutionary chain to humans, researchers are very confident that this technique will be successful when applied to humans. They say this could be a reality in 2-5 years. In anticipation of this development, the university has already stored testicular tissue from 200 male patients and ovarian tissue from a small sample of female patients.
Unfortunately though, this method isn’t viable for all cancers as for some, there is too high of a risk that cancer cells may be hidden in the frozen tissue. These cancers include testicular cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma. However, it’s likely that it will be an option for those with sarcoma or brain cancer. This technique could also potentially be utilized for individuals with other rare conditions whose fertility may be affected by chemotherapy, such as those with sickle cell anemia, .
The results from this study have been published in Science. The next step for the researchers is to replicate the study using more monkeys. Then they will move to investigation in humans.
In the meantime, these researchers hope that their initial findings will encourage more parents of children with cancer to bank testicular tissue before chemotherapy just in case.
You can read more about this research here.