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 Wednesday, 8 January, 2003, 00:00 GMT
Cancer patients given fertility hope
Tamoxifen tablets
Tamoxifen is used to treat breast cancer
The drug tamoxifen may not only help to treat women with breast cancer, it might also help them to conceive.

US fertility experts have discovered that the drug can potentially help breast cancer patients to have babies by IVF.

It would be especially fitting if a drug that has saved so many women's lives should also turn out to be a means of preserving their fertility

Professor Kutluk Oktay
A team from Cornell University in New York have successfully helped one woman to become a mother after using the drug.

In total, they used tamoxifen to stimulate the ovaries of 12 breast cancer survivors.

They found that a short, carefully timed course of the drug boosted the number of eggs that could be retrieved for use in IVF.

As a result, every patient had one or more embryos either for freezing for later attempts at pregnancy, or for immediate transfer.

One patient who had two fresh embryos transferred has already given birth to twins.

Another patient conceived on her second attempt although she miscarried.

None of the patients with frozen embryos has yet attempted pregnancy.

Chemotherapy effect

Around 15% of breast cancer patients are still of reproductive age when diagnosed.

However, drug treatment for their cancer often leads to infertility.

And even those who remain fertile are advised to wait up to five years before trying to conceive, often meaning that they are too old to try for a baby when it becomes safe to do so.

Lead researcher Professor Kutluk Oktay said: "These women can try natural cycle IVF without ovarian stimulation, but typically, no more than a single embryo can be achieved for immediate use or freezing.

"So, we need to find a safe way of increasing the number of embryos to give these women a better chance of having a baby.

"We exploited tamoxifen's dual action as an ovarian stimulating drug and an anti-cancer agent."

The researchers plan to combine tamoxifen with low amounts of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) to determine whether this has an even greater effect.

Positive thoughts

Professor Oktay said: "Many of my patients tell me that just doing something to address the issue of loss of reproductive function makes it easier for them to deal with breast cancer.

"It connects them to their future and underlines that because they have breast cancer it does not mean they have a terminal illness.

"It would be especially fitting if a drug that has saved so many women's lives should also turn out to be a means of preserving their fertility."

Kate Law, head of clinical trials for Cancer Research UK, said the research should be treated with caution.

"It consisted of 12 women, one of whom has given birth successfully, and there has been no long-term follow-up to identify any potential hazards associated with the treatment.

"Approximately 50% of pre-menopausal women who receive chemotherapy for breast cancer will regain their fertility within 2-5 years and women should ideally discuss issues such as fertility with their oncologists prior to treatment."

Tamoxifen is the world's most successful anti-cancer drug, saving the lives of thousands of breast cancer patients every year worldwide.

The research is published in the journal Human Reproduction.

See also:

13 Sep 02 | Health
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19 May 00 | Medical notes
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