MU researchers receive grant to improve fertility in female cancer survivors

Friday, October 12, 2007 | 11:49 a.m. CDT; updated 12:08 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Before Michelle Baetiong began chemotherapy for abdominal cancer in 2006, she decided to have eggs from her ovary frozen, knowing there was only a 6 percent chance that the two harvested eggs would ever result in a successful pregnancy.

The 24-year-old New York resident underwent the egg freezing procedure with just 15 percent of an ovary. In 2005, her right ovary and most of the left had been removed when she was treated for ovarian cancer, a disease she had been misdiagnosed with.


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By the time she received a correct diagnosis for peritoneal mesothelioma, an abdominal cancer caused by asbestos exposure, egg freezing was her last fertility option.

Although her fertility specialist told her to prepare for the worst when she was ready to use the eggs, she wanted to preserve any chance she had to become pregnant.

“I pretty much did it for the hell of it, with high hopes that even if I have a 6 percent chance, later on in the future it could be 15 (percent),” she said. “The future is about advanced technology.”

Researchers at MU are working towards this future.

This month, a team of scientists at the university received a $1.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to research methods for improving fertility in female cancer survivors, according to John Critser, Gilbreath-McLorn professor of comparative medicine and director of the Comparative Medicine Center, who will be leading the project.

He said the problem of infertility in female survivors “has been a difficult one for anybody to solve for many, many years.”

Steven Mullen, who will be participating in the project, said women who have survived cancer often have difficulty becoming pregnant due to the treatment they receive.

“Very commonly the therapy necessary to cure the patients destroys the ovarian follicles, rendering the patients sterile,” he said.

To help women have their own biological children after cancer treatment, the team will focus on improving preservation techniques of ovarian tissue, follicles and oocytes (eggs), which are damaged after cancer treatment.

The tissues are preserved prior to treatment, using cryopreservation, a process that maintains the biological function of the tissue until the patient is ready and able to become pregnant.

The current methods for cryopreservation are unsatisfactory, according to Mullen, who says the process may not be the most desirable for human tissue.

The American Cancer Society Web site considers the technique “experimental,” and estimates that only about 150 children have been born as a result of egg freezing, and that only one or two successful pregnancies have occurred as a result of grafting ovarian tissue into a woman’s body.

In an attempt to achieve higher success rates, Mullen said the team will investigate several factors, including the effects of various cooling rates, as well as the use of different cryoprotectants, which are used to stabilize the structure of frozen inter-cellular structures, and can reduce or inhibit ice formation in the cells.

The NIH-funded research will allow the lab to perform experiments on specimens from non-human primates, which Mullen said are a good model for humans.

Mullen said the team is honored to have been included in the experiment. The lab is one of about a dozen in the world that focuses on cryobiology, according to Critser. He thinks the group is critical for inclusion in the grant.

“There are not many labs who do what we do. We are fairly unique,” he said.

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