Protecting fertility in cancer patients

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerFebruary 28, 2011 

Many girls and young women who undergo cancer treatment might not only beat the disease but also preserve the ability to have children with the help of a drug used to treat multiple sclerosis patients.

Research conducted by Oregon Health and Science University and Battelle in Richland showed that each monkey in the study had healthy offspring when the adult females were treated with the drug before their ovaries were exposed to radiation. Battelle operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for the Department of Energy.

Now one in 49 girls or women in the United States undergoes cancer treatment between birth and age 40, and many of those receive significant damage to their ovaries from radiation or chemotherapy, according to the study published in the online edition of the journal Fertility & Sterility.

"It potentially impacts tens of thousands of girls or young women in the United States a year," said Mark Murphy, a senior research scientist at PNNL.

The compound tested is called FTY720, which mimics a natural lipid in the body, Murphy said. Both the brain and the ovaries have many receptors for the lipid.

The compound is the first medicine approved in pill form to delay the progression of multiple sclerosis, and research at Massachusetts General Hospital also has shown it can protect the fertility of mice exposed to radiation or chemotherapy.

The research conducted by OHSU and Battelle brought the drug therapy closer to use in humans, by testing it in rhesus macaque monkeys from the OHSU Oregon National Primate Research Center. Testing in monkeys was important because their reproductive systems are much more like a woman's than a mouse's systems, said Mary Zelinski, an associate scientist at OHSU's primate research center, in a statement.

A week after adult female monkeys were given FTY720, they were given a dose of radiation similar to that which would cause permanent sterility in a girl or woman undergoing cancer treatment.

Battelle's role was to measure accurate therapy doses and to protect the monkey during radiation by delivering radiation only to the ovaries. It developed a device inserted into the monkey that used lead and tungsten to shield critical organs from the radiation treatment.

Enough eggs were preserved in the ovaries that the monkeys each had healthy offspring. The study followed the offspring through their first year of life, showing they developed normally.

"While there are additional studies to be conducted, there is a strong likelihood that this intervention could protect human fertility," Zelinski said. "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 FTY720 also has been proposed as a possible treatment for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, Murphy said.

Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com

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