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Wednesday, 31 July, 2002, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Egg success 'could aid cancer girls'
A fully-functioning egg was produced
Young girls facing a childless future because treatment for cancer will make them infertile have been offered hope by Japanese scientists.

A baby girl is born with all the eggs she will need for her fertile life, but they are immature and cannot be fertilised.

Many forms of chemotherapy for cancer would probably destroy them all, and even if these immature follicles were removed and frozen prior to treatment, they could not be used to create an embryo once the woman wants to have children.

However, the team from Gunma University in Japan have managed to take the earliest form of egg cells - from a female mouse foetus - and, using a variety of chemical treatments and lab techniques, develop them over a 28-day period into fully mature eggs.

The eggs were successfully fertilised
These were fertilised with sperm, transferred into surrogate mothers, and live, apparently healthy offspring.

Importantly however, although the matured egg contained the genetic code of from the original egg cell, the use of some "cloning-style" techniques might trouble ethicists if there were attempts to carry them over into humans.

In this case, the nucleus of the egg cell was extracted and inserted into a "surrogate" egg from an adult mouse from which the original nucleus had been removed.

This composite egg was then fertilised.

High success

The overall success rate of egg maturation was 90%, but these ethical barriers mean that there are unlikely to be attempts to reproduce any part of the technique in humans.

Dr Geraldine Hartshorne, a research fellow from Warwick University, has an interest in the in vitro maturation of eggs.

She told BBC News Online that the use of the surrogate "egg-shell" meant that the Japanese team had not completely cracked the problem - although they had made significant progress on other fronts.

She said: "One other problem is that, in humans, the eggs mature over a period of months rather than in 28 days, which would present different difficulties.

"We have yet to check to see if these offspring are completely normal in development when compared with other baby mice."

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Storing in hope

At present, a woman or girl facing cancer treatment and possible infertility can have her eggs retrieved and stored for later use, even though, in the case of the girl, there is no available technique to mature human eggs.

They are stored in the hope that the technique will be developed by the time the child becomes and adult and wishes to have children.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has only recented begun to grant licences to IVF clinics to thaw out adult eggs and use them in fertility treatment.

A working group from the British Fertility Society (BFS) is currently considering what should be done to help young children in danger of losing their ability to have children because of cancer therapy.

Led by BFS president Professor Ian Cooke, of the University of Sheffield, it is due to publish its recommendations later this year.

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25 Jan 00 | Health
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