A small European study showed 31 percent of cancer patients had successful pregnancies after they received transplants of their own (once removed and frozen) ovarian tissue. A substantial number required additional measures, such as in-vitro fertilization.
Though solid overall, the coverage would have been measurably improved with inclusion of a few details, including information about costs and specifics about whether/where the procedure is available in the United States. We also quibble with one researcher’s description of the size of the benefit. The suggestion that “many” women will get pregnant using this procedure is somewhat misleading. The procedure led to a successful pregnancy in less than a third of the women who received it.
Having children is an emotional and cultural touchstone for both men and women. Cancer patients have long suffered infertility because of harsh drugs and radiation therapies. This study raises hopes that by taking some ovarian tissue before treatment, some women can eventually get that organ re-implanted and become pregnant.
Surgery to remove a healthy ovary, storage of that tissue for as long as a decade, and surgical reimplantation all involve substantial cost. The story doesn’t help the reader begin to put this in context. If the patient requires IVF, in-vitro fertilization, when she hopes to conceive again, the costs will go much higher. Almost half of the pregnancies in the study required IVF, according to the story. The story let the readers down here. (Here’s more about the high costs of infertility treatment from an advocacy group.)
The story arguably overstates the impact of transplantation, allowing a researcher to claim that “many” women who survive cancer will be fertile because of this surgery — when the story clearly states that less than a third of the women in this tiny study had a good outcome.
But since the main thrust of this criterion is numbers, and the story does provide them, we’ll give the benefit of the doubt here. However, we wish that the story had pushed back harder against this framing — “some” or “a minority” of women would have been a better descriptor here than “many.”
The story just barely mentions the risk – which it says is not increased – of a return of cancer. Since that’s likely the main concern with this procedure, we’ll go ahead and award a Satisfactory. But we’d add that women who have their own ovarian tissue removed and then reimplanted in a new surgery could potentially have complications of those procedures (all surgeries carry some risk). No such complications are addressed in the study that’s the basis for this story, and it’s not clear if adverse effects (beyond cancer recurrence) were tracked by the study authors. We wish the story had asked about, and covered, those potential harms.
The story does a good job of outlining the evidence. We are glad that the story included details about how many patients required fertility treatments after receiving their own tissue back years after its removal.
There was no disease mongering.
The story quoted two of the authors of the original study, Jensen and Andersen, as well as a third researcher, Hershlag, who appears to be independent of that group. The inclusion of multiple sources is a strong point in the coverage.
The story notes that instead of the removal of the entire ovary and storage, it is possible patients could choose embryo cryopreservation/freezing. A physician is quoted as follows:
“The pregnancy rate with frozen embryos is close to 50 percent, and results are getting better,” he said, referring to another option for women hoping for a future pregnancy. “It remains to be seen which method is better.”
We’d add that embryo cryopreservation/ freezing requires a woman to have a partner or use donor sperm AND to undergo IVF — a lot to do in the context of cancer treatment. Freezing unfertilized eggs is another approach where there’s the option to attempt to fertilize them later.
The story does not say whether this approach, which requires a lot of planning ahead for a cancer patient, is widely available outside of research centers. The research was done in Denmark and it’s not clear if it’s offered here in the United States or how widely.
Apparently, it isn’t new to remove an ovary and freeze it. Some of the patients in the study had that done 15 years ago. The story establishes this and explains that the study is new in that it reports on longer-term outcomes.
The story did not appear to rely on a news release, and had independent comments.