Researchers from Mansoura Medical School in Egypt and Georgia Medical School in Augusta showed that human bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells injected directly into mouse ovaries after chemotherapy were able to repair damage to the reproductive tissue and restore fertility.
The work was presented at the 71st Annual Meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) in Baltimore last week.
The mice that received the stem-cell treatment regained oestrogen production as early as one week after the injection. Blood profiling revealed a restored ovarian function and an increase in the number and size of follicles. These mice went on to have pups in litter sizes comparable to those from mice that did not receive chemotherapy.
The toxicity of chemotherapy can permanently damage the ovaries and egg reserve in women of fertile age. Unlike men, who produce sperm throughout their life, women are born with all their eggs and, if destroyed, infertility and early menopause can occur. More than 20,000 women of childbearing age are diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK.
Current practice offers women the option to receive egg stimulation and cryopreservation, but there is not always enough time for this between cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy treatment.
Dr Owen Davis, the elected president of ASRM, said, 'If this experimental treatment can be translated to women who have lost ovarian function from chemotherapy, it will be a great advance.
'Restoring ovarian hormone production, follicle development and fertility to chemotherapy patients is a potential new application for bone marrow donation that could help many women'.
If it proves safe for use in humans, stem cell ovarian regeneration could also potentially treat other causes of infertility and early menopause.
Consultant gynaecologist Dr Stuart Lavery, of Imperial College London, told the Telegraph: 'This is a very exciting piece of research that adds to our understanding of how cells differentiate to become egg stem cells.
'There remains an enormous amount of work to see if these results would be transferable into humans, but it does provide realistic hope that post-chemotherapy patients could restore ovarian function and possibly fertility.'