Melbourne doctors have learned how to preserve a woman's fertility indefinitely, opening up the possibility for women to avoid menopause altogether and get pregnant later in life.
But they say they're currently only using the ovarian tissue transplant technique on women who have medical reasons to preserve their fertility.
Director of Monash IVF, Gab Kovacs, said his team had successfully preserved a Melbourne woman's fertility by taking ovarian tissue from her before she had breast cancer treatment in 2005, then freezing it before reimplanting it in her this year.
The procedure allowed the 43-year-old woman's body to resume natural ovulation, and she is now six weeks pregnant.
After announcing that the patient had become the 20th woman in the world - and the first in Australia - to achieve pregnancy with the ground-breaking technique, Professor Kovacs said ovarian tissue freezing had enormous potential for cancer patients and other women worldwide.
If we're doing it for cancer we're doing it for a crisis, whereas the rest of it is probably trying to fandangle nature too much
He said it not only created a more reliable way for cancer patients to preserve their fertility, but opened up the potential for women to avoid the onset of menopause altogether.
"What this means is that a woman's fertility can be preserved indefinitely," he said.
"The whole concept of using it for social reasons doesn't sit comfortably with me, so I'm not advocating for that, but it might have a place in preventing diseases that come with menopause such as osteoporosis."
Professor Kovacs said the technique, which he learned from Israeli fertility specialists, could be easily taught to other doctors.
It is also cheaper than options currently available to women with cancer, including egg freezing and IVF.
‘‘This could be the way to go for women who want to preserve their fertility after cancer,’’ he said.
Dr Lyndon Hale, medical director of Melbourne IVF, said his clinic had successfully transplanted ovarian tissue in several patients. However, only one patient had become pregnant with the help of IVF, and she suffered a miscarriage.
The procedure involves keyhole surgery to take a portion of the outer shell of the ovary which has eggs in it. A whole ovary could be taken, too, but that could reduce the woman’s chance of carrying a pregnancy.
‘‘It’s still in the developmental stage so it depends on the particular circumstances in the patient,’’ Dr Hale said.
‘‘If people have chemotherapy, it may destroy tissue in the body, but it may not. For some women who have had chemotherapy, their ovaries recover and produce eggs afterwards so they can get pregnant. So if you remove the whole ovary you’d be taking that opportunity away."
Dr Hale said the tissue is sliced up thinly and treated with a biological anti-freeze product so it can be frozen safely and then thawed and implanted back on to the woman’s remaining ovarian tissue.
If the graft takes and the tissue continues to grow normally, Dr Hale said the ovaries can continue to produce the hormones required for natural ovulation.
While the technique meant any woman could theoretically have ovarian tissue taken during her reproductive years and frozen for a transplant later, when she’s approaching menopause in her 40s or 50s, Dr Hale said his clinic would not do this for social reasons.
‘‘It’s possible but I wouldn’t be recommending it to my daughters,’’ he said. ‘‘If we’re doing it for cancer we’re doing it for a crisis, an identified need, whereas the rest of it is probably trying to fandangle nature too much.’’
For women wanting to reduce the potentially negative aspects of menopause, such as osteoporosis, depression, loss of libido and vaginal dryness, Dr Hale said there were hormone replacement therapies available to boost hormone production that may result from an ovarian transplant.
Dr Hale said the two main IVF clinics in Melbourne – Monash and Melbourne IVF – had guidelines not to do IVF for women over 50 with donor eggs, because of the increased health risks of pregnancy in older age.
‘‘We think there is a natural time to have babies and as you get older you get other medical conditions. It becomes an unsafe thing to do,’’ he said.
- with AAP