Can Freezing Part of A Woman’s Ovaries Delay Menopause?
A medical procedure that has been used to freeze a woman’s ovaries is being offered for the first time as a way to delay menopause for up to 20 years, according to news reports. Not everyone’s convinced.
Doctors take out parts of the ovaries and freeze them before such patients undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment. In the future, if these patients want to have children, doctors reimplant the ovarian tissue in the body.
The U.K.-based company, ProFam, is offering the same procedure for women up to the age of 40 who just want to delay menopause — the time when levels of reproductive hormones fall, and a woman stops getting her menstrual period.
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The procedure — which costs about £7,000 to £11,000 ($8,500 to $13,300) — involves removing and then freezing a small portion of ovarian tissue, which can later be thawed out and reimplanted to delay the onset of menopause.
The company has already performed this procedure, on nine women. The idea is that once the women enter menopause, the tissue can be reimplanted into their bodies and restore their sex hormones — thereby pausing menopause, according to The Guardian.
Though it’s too early to know how effective the surgery is, but the doctors behind it hope by administering the experimental procedure now, they can, hopefully, one day routinely be able to delay menopause.
How The Procedure Works
This procedure, called “ovarian tissue cryopreservation,” isn’t something new. It was developed back in the late 90s and is commonly performed to preserve the ovaries of girls and young women undergoing tissue-damaging cancer treatment.
It involves removing a piece of a woman’s ovarian tissue via keyhole surgery. The tissue is then frozen for, potentially, decades.
It’s then thawed out and reimplanted in the woman’s body in a location where it can regain blood supply and start functioning again to restore falling hormone levels. Interestingly, it doesn’t have to be reinserted in or near the ovary. Other locations, such as the armpit, can actually be much easier to monitor.
“The site doesn’t have to be the ovary, and in fact, regrafting the tissue onto or near the ovary requires a more invasive surgical procedure,” Dr. Amanda Kallen, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist with the Yale Fertility Center, explained.
However, its effectiveness will depend on the age of the woman when her tissue is taken. Tissue frozen from a younger patient and implanted later in her life might delay menopause for decades, whereas tissue frozen from an older patient might delay it only for a few years, but the procedure could increase other health risks.
Experts don’t know just how long the transplants can survive once they’re reimplanted in the body. With the younger cancer patients, for example, the tissue’s traditionally had a shorter shelf life, according to health experts.
“Available data, when this has been done with much younger ovaries (young cancer patients), find that their survival can be quite short — much shorter than their quoted 20 years,” said Dr. Marcelle Cedars, the director of the UCSF Center for Reproductive Health.
Menopause is a natural process, and experts point out there can be potential complications if it’s artificially delayed. It isn’t necessarily a damaging health condition that needs to be treated like a disease. While there’s evidence that delayed menopause can also trigger harmful side effects, health experts suspect.
“By removing tissue, you would actually shorten that person’s reproductive window,” he said. By the time the tissue is implanted, it’s not the same as fresh tissue and will have lost half or more of its follicles (the structures that eventually give rise to mature eggs), he said. So, “what you’re putting in is not the same as what you’re taking out,” he said.
With cancer patients, there’s a somewhat clearer benefit to performing this procedure, because they will lose that ovarian tissue anyway, he said. For healthy patients, it’s possible that with more research, it can be developed into a procedure that will clearly and effectively delay menopause, but for now, “we still don’t know the equation” for the risk versus the benefit, he said.