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Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 00:13 GMT
Fertility hope for boys with cancer
Fertility techniques help cancer survivors father children
UK researchers are calling for a sperm bank to be set up to store samples from boys facing cancer treatment.

They say many young men aged 12 years and above are able to produce a sperm sample, giving them the chance of fathering a child in later life.

In a separate development, scientists have carried out animal studies which may offer hope to boys with cancer.


It will be a long time before such research, if successful, could ever be used in a clinical setting

Professor Tim Eden
A Japanese team says it has restored the fertility of young male mice made sterile with a cancer drug.

The rodents were able to produce sperm when freeze-thawed testes tissue was transplanted into mice.

Frozen tissue from a rabbit used in a second mouse experiment also yielded sperm.

This was injected into rabbit eggs, and the embryos put into two surrogate rabbits. One became pregnant and gave birth to a baby rabbit.

Experts stress, however, that the Japanese study is regarded as highly experimental and in its early stages.

Professor Tim Eden from the Cancer Research UK Paediatric Oncology Unit in Manchester told BBC News Online: "It will be a long time before such research, if successful, could ever be used in a clinical setting."

Clinical need

Fertility protection is a problem for very young male cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Cancer treatment
Fertility can be destroyed by cancer drugs
Co-researcher of the Japanese study, Dr Atsuo Ogura, said that in the future doctors may be able to restore fertility even to pre-pubertal boys and babies.

The idea is to take a sample of testicular tissue, freeze it and later transplant it back into the body.

A sperm sample would be retrieved and IVF techniques used to fertilise a partner's egg.

Team leader Dr Takashi Shinohara, assistant professor at Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine, believes this could happen in less than a decade.

'Psychological boost'

A separate scientific study, published in the same journal, Human Reproduction, shows that 85% of boys as young as 12 can produce sperm suitable for freezing.

Researchers in London are calling for sperm banking to be offered to all male cancer patients who are old enough.

Adult cancer patients are routinely offered the chance to freeze their sperm but it is less common in adolescents.

"These young people are having to embark on chemotherapy or radiotherapy that is probably going to damage or even destroy their ability to father children," said Dr Gulam Bahadur from University College Hospital, London.

"Now we can provide them with some positive news that will give a much needed psychological boost at a difficult time in their lives."

Caution

Dr Bahadur said it was vital that the service was offered along with appropriate support and counselling. However, he said, doctors should not shy away from discussing it because of these difficulties.

Commenting on the study, Professor Eden said taking samples from teenage boys was a matter of good practice.

It was common in many UK children's cancer centres, he explained, but is not always successful, particularly in younger teenagers.

He told BBC News Online: "Boys sometimes cannot produce a sample and, if they can, the sperm count can often be quite low due to their illness.

"The UK study does not seem to have found anything radically different."

Myrna Whiteson, chairman of the UK's Teenage Cancer Trust, welcomed any chance of giving boys the chance of a normal life and the possibility of having a family .

But she said the findings must be treated with some caution.

"We must keep the bigger picture in mind," she said.

"There is a lot that we still need to understand both physiologically and psychologically about adolescents and young people with cancer and this will not be a solution for every boy.

"However, it is a great step forward and one that The Teenage Trust very much welcomes."

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