Freezing Ovarian Tissue : A New Way To Put Parenthood On Pause

In October of 2012, word hit the press that egg freezing is no longer experimental. The news was met with mixed reactions. While many see it as a step forward for women wanting to extend or protect their fertile years, others feared we’d opened a reproductive Pandora’s box.

Some envisioned generations of parentless teens, the offspring of self-centered women who’ve put off parenthood until the bitter end.

And while there are many reasons to believe this will never come to pass, it raises questions that beg for answers. Is there a limit to how far we should take assisted reproductive technologies? How old is too old? What are the implications for our ever-improving ability to beat Mother Nature at her own game?

An Unconventional Graduation Gift

Already, British fertility expert Gillian Lockwood has suggested that “egg freezing should be every father’s graduation gift to his daughter” (it could just as well be a gift from Mom, but I’ll let that one ride for now). Dr. Lockwood goes on to say that the lucky recipient “could have twenty beautiful eggs in the freezer”.

gift of time

Theoretically, she’d never have to worry about declining fertility—a huge relief for any woman embarking on a career.

But it also would make a gal less likely to settle for “Mr. Less-Than-Perfect”. With time on her side, she may wait longer to find her ideal mate. Dr. Lockwood worries that some women — lulled into a sense of security by those frozen beauties — might wait indefinitely.

Egg freezing has implications for men as well. We all know guys who make tracks as soon as they sense a woman is on a time table. The male gender can smell desperation from a mile away. I can imagine the ads in the personals: “man seeks woman who will not expect him to grow up any time soon…please have plenty of eggs on ice.”

A New Way To Stop The Clock

But I digress…

Enter Dr. Sherman Silber, a surgeon in St. Louis who pioneered microsurgery in the 1970’s and has been at the forefront of ART research. He tells us that soon, freezing ovaries will be as mainstream as freezing eggs.

Dr. Silber describes a technique in which a single ovary is removed and the outer one millimeter — which contains all the eggs — is dissected away. This layer is then sliced into about 20 strips (cryopreservation works better on the smaller pieces). The frozen strips are thawed as needed and surgically reattached to the woman’s remaining ovary, kind of like a skin graft.

The procedure was originally developed as a means of preserving fertility in cancer and autoimmune patients.

While it was speculated that the frozen tissue could restore fertility for a matter of months, Dr. Silber has found that a grafted ovary can actually produce eggs for about seven years. With each surgery using around 4 strips, a woman could have enough tissue in the freezer to extend her fertile years by …well, you do the math!

Even more compelling is the fact that reattaching frozen ovarian tissue could also delay or reverse menopause. As long as a woman can keep returning to the “bank” for fresh strips of tissue, she’ll continue to ovulate and have a normal menstrual cycle.

In theory, this method will be infinitely more powerful than hormone replacement therapy. And way more controversial.

Why It’s Not All A Bed Of Roses

thorns

As compelling as it is, freezing ovarian tissue won’t change our demographic as drastically as you might think. It shares many of the drawbacks I’ve brought up regarding egg freezing (such as expense and lack of insurance coverage), as well as the following:

  • Freezing ovarian tissue is better suited for a younger women planning ahead than for a woman of 38 who fears time is running out. That’s because the odds of success correspond to the age of the tissue when it’s frozen. Dr. Silber recommends that a woman have the procedure by age 30.
  • Frozen ovaries can’t be shared between women of different genetic makeup. The ovarian tissue must be the woman’s own, or from a twin or other relative who’s a close genetic match. Foreign tissue would be rejected.
  • Just like egg freezing a few years ago, freezing ovarian tissue is still considered experimental. Currently only around 20 babies have been born worldwide as a result of this new technique.

Egg freezing only took a few years to move from experimental to mainstream. So freezing one’s ovaries won’t be far behind. And the implications are even more complex. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

 

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