An American baby boy, undergoing treatment for cancer that is likely to leave him infertile, has had samples of his sperm-producing stem cells frozen. It is hoped that if his treatment results in infertility then he might later be able to have the tissues grown and reimplanted in an attempt to restore his fertility.
While post-pubescent children have had sperm saved - in the same fashion provided for many adult patients who are undergoing fertility-damaging treatments - this procedure can also be provided to protect the fertility of much younger children who are years away from sexual maturity. Dr Jill Ginsberg, a paediatric oncologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia where the procedure was performed told the Times newspaper that 'we do not approach the families of every little boy - only if we're fairly certain the [cancer] treatment is going to leave them infertile. We're hopeful because science advances so quickly, but we can't make any promises. It's just an option that's never been available before'.
Rather than providing a store of frozen sperm that may be used in assisted reproductive procedures in years to come, the new procedure saves stem cells that can later be reimplanted in an attempt to restore fertility and permit non-assisted reproduction. The new technique thus has the dual developments of allowing for the treatment of even younger patients and in progressing a potential therapy for restoring fertility rather than just providing an alternative when it is lost.
The new procedure is reliant upon improved methods for encouraging the growth and multiplication of the limited number of sperm producing stem cells found in the body. It is hoped that even if reimplanting the cells does not yield success at restoring fertility then the cells will still be capable of producing sperm in the lab and these can still be used in the conventional manner via assisted reproduction.
The technology has, however, evoked concern about such procedures being performed at such an early age, inevitably relying wholly on parental consent whereas for post-pubescent patients the input and consent of the individual has been of central importance. It is however clear that the procedure provides potential further options for the child when of age and the patient could have the samples destroyed without using them if they so wished.