New technique may allow more cancer patients to preserve their fertility

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists in Germany have shown that it is possible to stimulate a woman's ovaries during the final phase of the menstrual cycle, enabling more women who have been diagnosed with cancer to freeze their eggs prior to undergoing cancer treatment.

Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can damage the ovaries, meaning that some women may not be able to conceive naturally after treatment.

Previously, doctors have needed to stimulate the ovaries at the start of a woman's menstrual cycle in order to produce eggs for collection. This means that if a woman is diagnosed with cancer at any other time in the cycle, they could have to wait for up to six weeks before their eggs can be collected, and the delay in starting cancer treatment could affect their prognosis.

However, the latest findings, which were presented at the 24th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, could speed up the process and enable more cancer survivors to restore their fertility.

Dr Michael von Wolff, vice-director of the Department of Gynaecological Endocrinology and Reproduction Medicine at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, said that waiting three to six weeks before starting a cancer treatment can be "far too long".

"This new protocol would enable patients with cancers such as breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma to have ovarian stimulation and oocyte (egg) collection," he said.

"Waiting for two weeks before they start cancer treatment is acceptable for most patients while this process happens.

"Furthermore, this protocol allows the combination of freezing and storing both ovarian tissue and oocytes, which results in the women having a higher chance of achieving pregnancy if their cancer treatment causes ovarian failure."

The team's study involved 40 women and set out to find out whether it was possible to stimulate the ovaries during the time between ovulation and the start of the woman's next period - known as the luteal phase - without having to give the woman drugs to stop the natural progression of her period. Dr Von Wolff revealed: "We found that the ovarian stimulation regime for patients in the luteal phase was successful in triggering the end of the luteal phase and the recruitment of a new cohort of follicles (which contain eggs).

"The number of oocytes obtained after stimulation in the luteal phase was slightly but not significantly lower than those obtained after stimulation in the proliferative phase. However the oocyte quality was the same in both groups."

The expert concluded: "This pilot study demonstrates for the first time that mature oocytes can be obtained before cancer therapy within a time frame of two weeks."

Read the abstract online