Thousands of childhood cancer survivors of diseases like leukemia and lymphoma end up unable to father children. Some San Antonio scientists are working on new ways to preserve the fertility of young cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy and radiation. These experiments are generating hope.
It’s a heart-breaking scenario. A young boy is cured of cancer, only to find out when he tries to start a family, he’s infertile.
"When people have no option to have their own children but really that’s their heart’s desire, that dream is taken away from them, that pulls at my heart strings," said
Brian Hermann, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Hermann explains that treatments for cancer target dividing cells. However, in addition to killing the targeted disease, the therapies can kill off other dividing cells in areas like hair follicles, the digestive system and testicles.
"Men produce a thousand sperm every time their heart beats," Hermann explained. "And in order to produce that level of cells, you have to have a lot of cell division."
While adult cancer patients can bank their sperm and father children using assisted reproduction later, pre-pubescent children don’t have that option. Sometimes, doctors will perform surgery and remove some tissue from the testicles to put back in later. But then there’s a risk some cancer cells might be transferred back into the body that way.
That’s why Hermann’s lab is busy with another approach, using a drug already on the market to stimulate white blood cells. Could it work for the cells that produce sperm, too? Early work in mice is promising. The drug is called GCSF for granulocyte colony-stimulating factor.
GCSF was administered to mice that were treated with chemo. Overall, the animals’ fertility was preserved.
"It’s taking those cells that survive, and it’s allowing them to divide more and repopulate the testes, said senior biomedical engineering student Travis Kotzur. "This could be a huge deal for a lot of people that have been devastated by this, you know, that they could have the chance to have their own children, their own genetic children."
The UTSA scientists are running more tests with mice to see when the drug should be given to young cancer patients and at what dosage so it’s most effective. Tests in people could come rapidly, since the treatment is already approved for other uses.
The drug under study for infertility is marketed under the name Neupogen and costs several hundred dollars per injection.