Improving fertility options for young women

January 19th, 2015
Imagine being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young woman, and then being told the very treatment that could save your life, may also take away your chance of having children.
This is the devastating reality for many young women diagnosed with breast cancer today.
Chemotherapy is often used very successfully to treat breast cancer in young women. Unfortunately, it also has some unwanted side effects, including the destruction of eggs stored within a woman’s ovaries. The impact of chemotherapy on the ovaries is a real problem for young women because once eggs are destroyed they cannot be replaced, leading to infertility.
Preserving the future fertility of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer is the focus of NBCF-funded research currently being conducted by Dr Karla Hutt and her team at Monash Institute of Medical Research and Prince Henry’s Institute in Melbourne.
“Each year in Australia, close to 800 young women are diagnosed with breast cancer under the age of 40. Many of these young women will face the very real prospect of infertility caused by the treatment that saves their lives,” explains Dr Hutt. “Our research is aiming to try and protect the fertility of women undergoing treatment for breast cancer.”
The current options available to young women wishing to preserve their fertility during chemotherapy for breast cancer are limited. Some women may opt to undertake embryo freezing –the preservation of a fertilised egg. However, this method requires a woman to have a partner with whom she intends to have children. Other women may opt to undertake egg freezing – the preservation of unfertilised eggs.
Both options require a woman to delay treatment and undergo ovarian stimulation through the injections of the hormone, oestrogen. The increased oestrogen levels and the delay to treatment can have potential risks for the woman, and there is no guarantee of a successful pregnancy.
For Dr Hutt, it is clear that there is a real need to develop new and improved methods to preserve the fertility of women exposed to chemotherapy, and enable them to have children of their own after treatment.
Let’s take a closer look at Dr Hutt’s research:
Dr Hutt has been awarded a Novel Concept Award from NBCF to investigate a potential new approach to preserving fertility in women undergoing chemotherapy.
In recent research, Dr Hutt and her team discovered that blocking the production of a certain ovarian protein in mice prevented infertility caused by radiation therapy.
In her current research, Dr Hutt is exploring whether this same technique of blocking an ovarian protein will also prevent infertility caused by exposure to chemotherapy. To do this, Dr Hutt will look at the impact of different types of chemotherapy on samples of ovarian tissues in which the target ovarian protein has been blocked. Dr Hutt hopes that by blocking the target ovarian protein, the ovarian tissue is protected from the damaging effect of chemotherapy.
Because the target ovarian protein being blocked in this research is also present in human ovaries, these findings could potentially be used to develop new treatments to prevent infertility in women with breast cancer.
If successful, Dr Hutt’s research will give young women diagnosed with breast cancer the chance to become mothers after their treatment. 
“As a mother, I can’t imagine having the chance to have children taken away from me,” says Dr Hutt. “I really believe in the research that we do.”
The funding that Dr Hutt receives from NBCF is vital to help her continue this exciting research. But it’s still early days – Dr Hutt and her team have a lot of work ahead of them. Your support will help Dr Hutt continue to grow her research, and ultimately improve the quality of life and fertility for young women after breast cancer.