Scientists have made “exciting” progress in the development of artificial “ovaries” to preserve women’s fertility.
Immature eggs have been shown for the first time in a laboratory to survive on ovarian tissue which was removed from cancer patients before treatment and stripped of cells, researchers said.
It is hoped this engineered structure could be re-implanted into women and restore fertility after they have completed chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Scientists from the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, proved the graft worked when using human tissue transplanted into mice.
Experts said the research, presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Barcelona, “holds much promise for the future”.
Many cancer treatments can damage the ovaries, stopping the body from producing eggs and meaning a woman cannot get pregnant.
Women dealing with a diagnosis can choose to have their eggs frozen, while some doctors may offer to remove or freeze all or part of an ovary so it can be transplanted back after treatment.
However, there is a small chance that grafted ovarian tissue could reintroduce cancer cells.
A “bio-engineered” ovary would reduce this risk, the research team from Rigshospitalet said.
Their experiments used ovarian tissue removed from women trying to preserve their fertility before cancer treatment.
The cells from the tissue were eliminated using chemicals, leaving behind a “bio-engineered scaffold” on which the early-stage egg-containing follicles were reseeded.
Dr Susanne Pors, who presented the research, said: “This is the first time that isolated human follicles have survived in a decellularised human scaffold and, as a proof-of-concept, it could offer a new strategy in fertility preservation without risk of malignant cell recurrence.”
Experiments in which the structure was transplanted into mice showed it could support the survival and growth of the follicles.
Professor Nick Macklon, medical director at London Women’s Clinic, said it was an “exciting development”.
He said the technique was “likely to develop into something that will be potentially useful”.
Stuart Lavery, consultant gynaecologist at Hammersmith Hospital, said “If this is shown to be effective, it offers huge advantages over IVF and egg freezing.