Clinical Review

Freezing the biological clock: A 2023 update on preserving fertility

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

—Benjamin Franklin



Throughout the 20th century, the management of ectopic pregnancy evolved from preserving the life of the mother to preserving fertility by utilizing the conservative treatment of methotrexate and/or tubal surgery. I make this, seemingly obscure, reference to managing ectopic pregnancy to consider an analogous shift over time in the management of patients with cancer. Over the next decade, the number of people who have lived 5 or more years after their cancer diagnosis is projected to increase approximately 30%, to 16.3 million. Due to the improved survival rates following a cancer diagnosis,1 revolutionary developments have been made in fertility preservation to obviate the impact of gonadotoxic therapy. We have evolved, however, from shielding and transposing ovaries to ovarian tissue cryopreservation,2 with rapid implementation.

While advances in reproductive cryopreservation have allowed for the delay, or even potential “prevention” of infertility, assisted reproductive technology (ART) cannot yet claim a “cure” in ensuring procreation. Nevertheless, fertility preservation is a burgeoning field that has transitioned from an experimental label to a standard of care in 2012, as designated by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).3 From the original intention of offering oocyte cryopreservation to women at risk of ovarian failure from impending gonadotoxic cancer treatment, fertility preservation has accelerated to include freezing for nonmedical reasons—eg, planned oocyte cryopreservation (POC), or “social” egg freezing, to ovarian tissue cryopreservation to accommodate the expediency needed for the treatment of certain cancer treatments. Additionally, across the United States, the number of donor egg banks, which allow women an easily accessible option, is rivaling enduring sperm banks. Due to the advanced methodology of vitrification and growing demand for the technology due to increasing IVF cycles, cryopreservation has become a specialized area of reproductive medicine, and a target of venture capital and private equity commercialization. This article will review the latest techniques, appropriate counseling, and cost/benefit ratio of fertility preservation, with an emphasis on POC.

CASE 1 Fertility preservation options for patient with breast cancer

A 37-year-old woman with newly diagnosed hormone receptor−positive breast cancer is referred for a fertility preservation consultation prior to initiating treatment. Her oncologist plans chemotherapy, followed by radiation and a minimum of 5 years of tamoxifen therapy.

What is the best consultation approach for this patient?

Consultation involves understanding several factors

The consultation approach to this patient involves ascertaining her medical, social, and family history, along with her reproductive plans.

Medical history. For the medical component, we must focus on her diagnosis, anticipated treatment with timeline, risks of gonadal toxicity with planned treatments, her current medical stability, and prognosis for expected survival.

Social history. Her age, relationship status, and desired family size address her social history.

Family history. Given that her cancer affects the breast, there is the risk of genetic susceptibility and potential for embryo testing for the BRCA gene.

Reproductive plans. These include her and her partner’s, if applicable, number of desired children and their risk factors for infertility.

Regarding the reproductive timeline, the antihormonal therapy that may be required for her treatment may improve overall survival, but it would delay the time to pregnancy. Consequently, the pursuit of fertility preservation prior to cancer treatment is a multidisciplinary approach that can involve medical oncology, radiation oncology, REI, medical genetics, and often, psychology. Fortunately, evidence continues to support fertility preservation, with or without hormonal ovarian stimulation, for patients with breast cancer. Data, with up to 5 years of follow-up, has indicated that it is safe.4

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