For years, cancer treatment-related infertility was an unfortunate and unpreventable consequence of the disease. Today, as a result of research conducted at Oregon Health & Science University, Massachusetts General Hospital and Battelle, many women may be able to beat cancer and still maintain fertility.
The research is published in the current online edition of the journal Fertility & Sterility and will appear in a future printed edition. Jonathan L. Tilly, Ph.D., director of the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital led the overall research project.
Mary Zelinski, Ph.D., at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) directed a portion of the research that is focused on protecting the ovaries during radiation treatments – a common therapy aimed at killing cancer cells. The research involved infusing the ovaries with a medication approved in 2010 by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of multiple sclerosis – a compound called FTY720. In addition to significantly delaying the progression of MS, it was theorized that FTY720 had the ability shield ovarian tissue from damage caused by radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
In this study, a group of rhesus macaque monkeys from the OHSU Oregon National Primate Research Center received an infusion of the FTY720 directly into the ovaries. One week later, the animals received a dosage of radiation to the ovaries similar to radiation levels given to human cancer patients that results in permanent sterility. A special device designed by Battelle allowed only the ovaries to receive the radiation therapy dose while protecting the rest of the animal. Later, the treated monkeys were placed with mates, and the radiation-treated animals were able to conceive and deliver normal infants. Surprisingly, the FTY720 had prevented against radiation damage to the ovaries.
“While there are additional studies to be conducted, there is a strong likelihood that this intervention could protect human fertility because reproductive systems of nonhuman primate (monkeys) and human primate systems are so similar,” said Zelinski, an associate scientist in the Division of Reproductive Science at ONPRC. “We also want to be sure that the medication is delivered in a way that protects only the ovaries but does not protect the cancer cells which are being targeted by the therapy.
The researches believe, based on prior studies in mice, it is also likely that this compound, or a similar medication, could shield some of the damage caused by chemotherapy drugs, which also harm the ovaries. This will have to be looked at in future studies.
The National Institutes of Health, Canada Research Chair Program, Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Vincent Memorial Research Funds funded this research.
The ONPRC is a registered research institution, inspected regularly by the United States Department of Agriculture. It operates in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act and has an assurance of regulatory compliance on file with the National Institutes of Health. The ONPRC also participates in the voluntary accreditation program overseen by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC).
Battelle is the world’s largest, independent research and development organization. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Battelle oversees 22,000 employees in more than 130 locations worldwide, including seven national laboratories which Battelle manages or co-manages for the U.S. Department of Energy including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., and for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a nuclear energy lab in the United Kingdom.