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More children in England and Wales, who are at high risk of being infertile after cancer treatment, will be given the chance of a family later in life thanks to a major donation to Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

More than 50 healthy babies have been born worldwide after reimplanting thawed ovarian tissue. Shutterstock
More than 50 healthy babies have been born worldwide after reimplanting thawed ovarian tissue.

IVI UK, part of the Valencian Infertility Institute (IVI Spain), has generously agreed to support ground breaking work at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust with a donation of £250,000.  The donation will support, and allow expansion of, the already established clinical service for storing ovarian and testicular tissue from children before they receive cancer treatment.  The service, which is a collaborative programme between the Trust and the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, University of Oxford, started in 2013 and is the first of its kind in England and Wales. 

Due to remarkable advances in the treatment of childhood cancer, over 80% of children now survive their disease but about 10% are made infertile as a result of chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

To preserve the fertility of young girls, ovarian tissue, which contains thousands of immature eggs, can be frozen (cryopreserved) before the cancer treatment.  The tissue is collected using keyhole surgery and stored at very low temperatures at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford.  At a later date, the tissue can be thawed and put back into the pelvis at a second operation.  The tissue will establish its own blood supply leading to egg production and restoration of fertility.  The technique is well-established and more than 50 healthy babies have been born worldwide after reimplanting the thawed tissue.  

Pre-pubertal boys do not produce mature sperm and so cannot benefit from sperm banking, which is the standard method for preserving male fertility after puberty.  However, the immature testes contain sperm stem cells, which remain viable when cryopreserved within a small amount of testicular tissue that is surgically removed.  The Oxford service has started storing this tissue as well.  The technique is new and there have been no live births yet using stored pre-pubertal testicular tissue but scientists believe this will be possible by reimplanting the tissue later in life. 

The IVI Foundation, the Research and Development arm of IVI will also be involved in a collaborative research programme working with scientists at the University of Oxford.  The research will aim to improve the techniques of fertility preservation in boys and girls.

Dr Sheila Lane, Consultant Paediatric Oncologist, who is the Trust’s Clinical Lead for the cryopreservation service, said: “We are delighted to receive this generous donation from IVI UK.  Tissue cryopreservation is not at the moment routinely funded by the NHS and so the donation will enable us to continue to offer this service to young people across England and Wales at high risk of infertility due to their cancer treatment.  We know from young people who have already had tissue stored that it gives them hope for the future, not only that they will survive their disease but, when they do so, that they will have the same opportunities to have children as everyone else.  To be able give these young people and their families real hope at the beginning of their cancer treatment is invaluable”

Professor Antonio Pellicer, President IVI, said: “IVI is pleased to announce this donation to the Trust.  We hope that it will help to deliver this important service to young people with cancer.  Alongside this, our Foundation will work with the University of Oxford on the basic science around the return of fertility to young people who undergo sterilising treatment for their cancer”.

Read more about Cryopreservation, tissue donation and referrals here