WOMEN of childbearing age diagnosed with cancer can have their fertility preserved through a pioneering procedure offered by specialists in Southampton.
Clinicians in the city are among the first in the country to carry out a new technique to remove and freeze ovarian tissue containing eggs to prevent them being damaged during cancer treatments.
Now leading experts hope the new method can trigger a wider rollout of fertility preservation for thousands of women and girls on the NHS.
Fertility preservation techniques are already available but they are not suitable for all women.
Specialists hope this new procedure will help those who were previously deemed unsuitable.
The so-called ovarian tissue cryopreservation process involves removing and freezing healthy ovarian tissue containing eggs before the start of radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
Both cancer treatments can permanently damage the reproductive organs or cause premature menopause.
Once a patient has completed their cancer treatment and is either in remission or of child-bearing age, the ovarian tissue strips are thawed.
They are then re-implanted into the patient to allow the return of ovarian function and fertility and help reduce premature menopause.
Patients can then try to conceive naturally or the eggs can be retrieved and fertilised in vitro with the embryo implanted in the uterus.
The hospital’s Complete Fertility Centre at the Princess Anne Hospital is only the second centre in England to offer the service and carries it out in partnership with NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT).
NHSBT is responsible for freezing and storing the healthy ovarian tissue at its specialist facility in Southampton.
The procedure, which is available to NHS patients on a case-by-case basis, was introduced there in collaboration with Dr Kirsten Schmidt, whose team pioneered the technique at the University Hospital of Copenhagen.
Professor Nick Macklon, is medical director of Complete Fertility Centre and a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust.
He hailed the method as “leading edge” and added: “It is distressing for cancer patients to learn that they may become infertile as a result of their cancer treatment and not all girls or women can benefit from the freezing of embryos and eggs which are already offered.
“This technique opens up the possibility to preserve fertility for many more women and girls.”
Dr Mili Saran, a consultant gynaecologist and clinical lead for fertility preservation at UHS, added: “We hope that our service will be the start of a wider rollout of ovarian tissue fertility preservation within the NHS so many more patients can benefit.”
Dr Claire Wiggins, head of stem cell immunotherapies at NHSBT Southampton, said she is “delighted” at running the service.
Specialists have also received an additional grant from the Steve Mills Fund – set up by the former Saints star and his wife Jo Hill before leukaemia claimed his life in 1988, aged just 33.
The procedure is also carried out by experts in Oxford.