London hospital will become the first to freeze the ovaries of women battling cancer on the NHS to allow them to have children after grueling treatment
- The Royal London Free Hospital in Hampstead will be the first to offer the service
- It could help thousands of women who risk infertility from cancer therapy
- The procedure has been used in Europe for years but never on the NHS
The fertility treatment may help thousands who may have difficulty getting pregnant after chemotherapy to have children later on in life.
Experts believe it is more successful than freezing eggs and could be suitable for women who can’t have IVF.
The procedure involves removing one of a woman’s ovaries and freezing it at nearly -200°C (-328°F), then re-implanting it when the woman wants to get pregnant.
Ovary freezing has been used for years in Europe, the US and Japan and in some experimental procedures in the UK, but never on the NHS.
The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London, has become the first NHS hospital to offer ovary freezing for women and girls about to have cancer treatment
The Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead is now offering the £3,500 service for free to its own patients and potentially those referred from other areas.
And the health service plans to extend access to the pioneering therapy – through which around 100 babies have been born – across the UK.
‘We have modelled our protocols on how it is done at one of the largest hospitals in Denmark,’ said Paul Hardiman, gynaecologist at the Royal Free.
‘They have been freezing human ovarian tissue since 1999.
What is infertility?
Infertility is when a couple cannot get pregnant despite having regular unprotected sex.
It affects one in seven couples in the UK – around 3.5 million people.
About 84 per cent of couples will conceive within a year if they have unprotected sex every two or three days.
Some will conceive quicker, and others later – people should visit their GP if they are concerned about their fertility.
Some treatments for infertility include medical treatment, surgery, or assisted conception, including IVF.
Infertility can affect men and women, and risk factors include age, obesity, smoking, alcohol, some sexually transmitted infections, and stress.
Fertility in both genders decreases with age – most rapidly in their 30s.
‘This is a well-established method in Europe, the US and Japan but the UK has lagged behind and patients often faced having to go abroad and pay to receive this treatment.
‘At a time when patients need to concentrate on life-saving therapies this intervention needs to take place as quickly as possible.’
The treatment involves keyhole surgery to remove an ovary, which is then processed and stored at -196°C (320°F) until the woman wants to use it again.
It will be offered to girls and women going through cancer treatment, because chemotherapy and radiotherapy can leave people infertile.
Some can use IVF if they already have a partner – in which eggs and sperm are used to make embryos in the lab and freeze them – but this isn’t suitable for all patients.
If a woman has her ovary frozen, when she wants to have a child she can have the tissue put back into her body and connected to the remaining ovary, which will restart her menstrual cycle.
This prevents the early menopause which is suffered by many cancer patients.
The hospital had to get the approval of the Human Tissue Authority, and its go-ahead could open the door for the treatment to be given for other conditions.
For example, women could one day choose to freeze their own ovaries if they want to delay having children, or they could be at risk of infertility for other reasons.