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Surgery May Restore Fertility Through Ovarian Transplants

By Rick Weiss
THE WASHINGTON POST -- For the first time, doctors appear to have restored fertility in a menopausal woman by reimplanting into her abdomen several pieces of her ovaries that had been removed and frozen when she a younger.

The experimental procedure, performed on an American ballerina, could lead to greatly expanded reproductive options for women by allowing them to become pregnant years or decades later in life than is now possible, doctors said.

Currently that’s an option generally restricted to men, since sperm can be frozen indefinitely but eggs do not tolerate freezing well. Frozen embryos can survive for many years, but that approach requires a woman to choose in advance the father of her future child.

The ballerina, who is now 30 and went into early menopause after her ovaries were removed several years ago for medical reasons, has not tried to get pregnant yet, so it’s too soon to say she is truly fertile. But all indications are that her reimplanted ovarian tissues are can produce mature eggs on a monthly cycle, her doctors said.

“She actually ovulated and then she menstruated,” said Kutluk Oktay of the New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, who led the effort with Richard Gosden of the University of Leeds in England.

The results are scheduled to be presented on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Toronto but they were leaked Wednesday to newspapers in Britain, which touted the work Thursday in front-page headlines declaring the “end of menopause.”

Among the first to take advantage of the method will be young women undergoing treatment for cancer, Oktay said, which can poison the ovaries and render women infertile. Scores of such patients in the United States and England already have had parts of their ovaries frozen in hopes that reimplantation will someday be available and will work. Until now, however, the method had been proven wholly successful only in a single experiment performed on a sheep. In the long run, doctors expect a much greater demand from healthy women who want to become pregnant later in life.