Can ovaries grow new eggs?


The accepted view is that women are born with a fixed number of eggs, but a new drug may change everything

Early evidence taken from a small study involving cancer patients has found a chemotherapy drug called ABVD may increase the number of a woman’s viable eggs.

A research team from the University of Edinburgh was inspired to conduct the study after noticing ABVD didn’t seem to cause fertility problems in patients unlike most other forms of chemotherapy, according to a Guardian exclusive.

They looked at the ovarian biopsies of 11 women with Hodgkin lymphoma – eight of whom had been given ABVD and three who had been given a stronger drug combination known to cause infertility.

They then compared these samples to the ovarian biopsies of 10 healthy women.

According to the results, those given the stronger drug combination had far fewer viable eggs than the healthy women, but the women who had been treated with ABVD had between double and four times the density of viable eggs in their ovaries than the healthy women.

“It’s a big increase, not just a few,” lead researcher Professor Evelyn Telfer from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland told The Guardian.

“This was something remarkable and completely unexpected for us. The tissue appeared to have formed new eggs,” she says.

Photo: University of Edinburgh/The Guardian
Photo: University of Edinburgh/The Guardian

While the sample size was small, Tefler thinks the quantity and appearance of the ABVD patients’ eggs suggest they were newly grown from stem cells inside the ovarian tissue.

However she was quick to remind people that the results still need to be investigated before any novel treatments are developed.

“There’s so much we don’t know about the ovary,” she says. “We have to be very cautious about jumping to clinical applications.”

David Albertini from the Centre for Human Reproduction in New York says the results need to be replicated and investigated further before being accepted.

“Honestly, I think there are too many other ways to explain the results, one of which is that new eggs were made,” he told The Guardian.

Some of those other explanations include the possibility that the extra eggs might have already been there, but rose to the surface during the treatment. Or maybe existing egg follicles split into two, he suggests.

Others think the results look promising.

“I think that these findings, and the identification of the mechanisms involved, may pave the way for development of new fertility treatments or extend women’s reproductive span by replenishment of the ovaries with new follicles,” says Kenny Rodriguez-Wallberg, a senior consultant at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm.

“It suggests that the ovary is indeed a more complex and versatile organ than we have been taught, or that we expected, with an inherent capacity of renewal.”

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