Scientists report chemotherapy cocktail may cause adult women to grow new egg cells

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Chemotherapy is usually associated with a collection of side effects ranging from digestive problems to hair loss, but a study published this week in Human Reproduction demonstrated that female cancer patients may find they have something in common with much younger women in one specific area — their ovaries.

Vials of drugs used in chemotherapy.
Image: US National Cancer Institute.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh examined donated ovarian tissue from fourteen female cancer patients, most of whom had Hodgkin lymphoma, and compared it to tissue from healthy women. They found the samples from women who had been treated with a specific chemotherapeutic regimen known as ABVD not only contained greater numbers of dormant ova — egg cells — than those from women treated with harsher regimens but also more than samples from healthy women. ABVD is named for combining several drugs known as adriamycin, bleomycin, vinblastine, and dacarbazine.

These reproductive cells were not merely more plentiful in ABVD patients. They also appeared immature, "new" in the words of lead researcher Evelyn Telfer. This challenges the conventional belief that girls are born with all the ova they will ever have and the numbers can only go down as the cells are either used up by the reproductive cycle or succumb to damage or natural aging. However, further research is needed to confirm this. The study covered relatively few patients by scientific standards, and David Albertini of the Center for Human Reproduction in New York has suggested the cells may not actually be freshly grown. Instead, they may have always been there and were merely rendered more detectable by ABVD treatment.

The ability to grow new egg cells may have significant implications for women in Western societies, many of whom postpone childbearing to establish careers, sometimes into their late thirties or forties. However, Telfer warns against making use of these findings too soon: "There's so much we don't know about the ovary. We have to be very cautious about jumping to clinical applications."

The experiments had been discussed earlier this year at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.


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