Women undergoing cancer therapy could still have children thanks to protein breakthrough
Blocking two proteins preserved egg-producing cells after exposure to radiation therapyThese damaged cells then repaired DNA damage and could produce healthy offspringFindings also has implications for women going through early menopause
09:54 GMT, 24 September 2012
Scientists have made a breakthrough that could preserve the fertility of women undergoing cancer treatment.
Some chemotherapy drugs can temporarily or permanently stop the ovaries from producing eggs. Radiotherapy of the womb or ovaries can also stop women from falling pregnant in future.
Now a study from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, has found a way to potentially protect their fertility, by blocking the activity of two proteins.
Cancer treatment, such as some forms of chemotherapy, can rob women of the chance of having children
The research published in Molecular Cell focused on egg cells called
primordial follicle oocytes, which provide each woman’s lifetime supply
of eggs. Low numbers of these egg cells can also cause early menopause.
Scientists found that when the DNA of egg cells is damaged following
exposure to radiation or chemotherapy, proteins known as Puma and Noxa trigger the death
of the damaged eggs, leading to infertility.
Associate Professor Clare Scott said: 'This removal of damaged cells is a natural process that is essential to maintaining health but, for women undergoing cancer treatment, can be devastating when it leads to infertility.'
However, these egg-producing cells did not died after exposure to radiation therapy if they were missing the Puma protein. Not only that, but they were then able to heal themselves and become healthy cells again.
Study leader Professor Jeffrey Kerr, said normally you wanted damaged egg cells to die so as not to produce abnormal offspring.
A human sperm fertilisze an egg, also known as an oocyte. Blocking a protein could preserve egg cells
However, he said: 'To our great surprise we found that not only did the cells survive being irradiated, they were able to repair the DNA damage they had sustained and could be ovulated and fertilised, producing healthy offspring.
'When the cells were also missing the Noxa protein, there was even better protection against radiation.'
Future treatments could block the function of Puma, preventing egg cell death in patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation.
Professor Jock Findlay, head of the Female Reproductive Biology Group at Prince Henry's Institute, in Melbourne, said the study could also have implications for delaying menopause.
'We know that the timing of menopause is influenced by how many egg cells a female has,' he said.
'Interventions that slow the loss of egg cells from the ovaries could delay premature menopause, prolonging female fertility, such a treatment could have the potential to reduce menopause-associated health conditions, such as osteoporosis and heart disease.'