COLUMBIA, Mo. -- More than 10 million people in the United State have cancer, and more than half of them are women. For those who could still give birth, cancer treatments might signal the end of their fertility. Now, a new $20 million, 5-year program from the National Institutes of Health is creating a national team of scientists to investigate every aspect of fertility preservation for women with cancer. Part of that effort is being led by University of Missouri-Columbia researchers.
The national research team will investigate women's fertility preservation from all aspects including preservation of eggs, cancer treatments, current policies and practices, information available to women, and healthcare decision-making. The project, led by Teresa Woodruff, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, includes more than 15 different institutions across the country.
MU researcher John Critser will receive approximately $1.25 million over five years to study cryopreservation methods of human eggs. The current methods are not efficient and there are many challenges in the cryopreservation process.
"It's easy to freeze anything, but when biomaterial is frozen and thawed, the viability of the material is lost frequently," said Steve Mullen, a post-doctoral researcher in veterinary pathobiology. "Most eggs in the ovaries are in the premature state, and in order to develop into mature and viable eggs, companion cells in the ovary are necessary. Therefore, freezing ovarian tissue, which is usually necessary for female fertility preservation, is very challenging because all of the different cell types must be preserved so that they can cooperate to mature the egg after the tissue is thawed."
Critser and Mullen, along with MU colleagues Danny Schust, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women's health; James Benson, a graduate student in Department of Applied Mathematics; and Xu Han, a post-doctoral fellow in veterinary pathobiology, will collaborate with researchers from other institutions involved in the project.
"The long term goal is to allow people to have children who otherwise might not be able to do so," said Critser, Gilbreath McLorn Professor of Comparative Medicine. "We are working to help women stay fertile and this new NIH roadmap -- combining interdisciplinary groups to study a problem from all angles -- will be vital to solving this problem."
"As we become better at curing patients of diseases that would have previously been invariably fatal, we also have a responsibility to maximize the opportunities that accompany survivorship," Schust said. "Cancer survivors put child-bearing very high on their list of post-therapy lifetime goals. This study should help us to simultaneously meet our responsibilities as health care providers and satisfy these very vital patient needs."
As part of the project, each member institution will have a representative that sits on a Board of Governors overseeing the project. MU's representative will be William Crist, Hugh E. and Sarah D. Stephenson Dean of the School of Medicine.
"Due to tremendous advances in medical research, millions of people who would have previously died of cancer now require care focused on improving their quality of life," Crist said. "Preserving fertility for women has become an increasingly important aspect of cancer survivorship, and MU is proud to contribute to this national effort to enrich the lives of cancer survivors and their families."