As a living, breathing being on this good earth, we tend to take things for granted. The ability to have offspring can be one of them. That is, until the day that a serious medical condition like cancer rears it ugly head and puts childbearing at risk. In addition to the sterilizing effect of cancer treatments, the mad rush to treat the disease often marginalizes efforts to preserve fertility. Fire all the canons and check for collateral damage later.
Fertility preservation seeks to protect men, adolescents and children from a common, serious and impactful side effect of cancer treatment: infertility. The goal of fertility restoration is to empower patients who are cured and potentially infertile to bear children. These related fields have burgeoned recently because medical care is now shifting from curing cancer to improving the quality of life among survivors. And without a doubt, for many, fertility is a key quality of life issue at some point. Thankfully, exciting new methods of restoring fertility have already been developed and even newer technologies are under study.
Classic techniques for fertility preservation in men include gonadal shielding and sperm banking. Gonadal shielding uses lead-based devices to protect the testicles from being struck directly by sterilizing radiation treatment. Sperm banking is the process of freezing healthy sperm before cancer treatment begins for later use to conceive. But there is more. For patients who are too young to bank sperm, for those who have precious little time to bank sperm, or for those who have no ejaculated sperm to bank, testis sperm retrieval by biopsy (TESE) or needle aspiration (TESA) for banking is now possible before cancer treatment. In fact, in some cases of testis cancer, it is possible to remove only the cancerous nodule instead of the whole testis, or to freeze sperm from the testicle after it is surgically removed. These are now routine ways to preserve fertility in men.
Fertility restoration for men has also seen real advances lately. Sperm “mapping” is an innovation that I developed for men who survive cancer treatment but have no sperm in the ejaculate. It non-invasively and non-surgically deciphers whether there are small numbers of mature sperm in the testis, too few to get into the ejaculate, but usable nonetheless. In men who sustain nerve injury from cancer surgery and who are unable to ejaculate, a special medical instrument can produce an ejaculate for fertility purposes in a process termed electroejaculation. Techniques such as these are valuable tools to help men deemed “sterile” after cancer treatment to become fathers.
One of the most exciting areas of fertility restoration involves stem cell technology. Yes, the “promise” that we have all heard about stem cells curing disease will likely find its way into the fertility field as well. In pre-pubertal boys with cancer, ejaculated sperm is not present. Despite this, it may be possible to freeze the early stem cells from the testicles of boys before sterilizing treatment. After thawing, these “adult” stem cells may later be used to create sperm after further growth in a Petri dish or after transplantation back into the same individual. Also on the horizon is our ability to take skin cells from a sterile man, convert them into an embryonic-like stem cells and then “drive” these cells to become mature sperm in a dish–a true “artificial testicle.” So, with the belief that hope can cure misery, the world of science has taken fertility research from science fiction to reality. Not convinced? Stay tuned!