Groundbreaking frozen ovary surgery: Cancer survivor first New Zealander to undergo operation


Alana Scott will be the first woman in New Zealand to have part of her frozen ovaries inserted back into her body with the hope of conceiving a baby.
Video / Dean Purcell

A 36-year-old cancer survivor is paving the way for women by becoming the first in New Zealand to have her frozen ovaries implanted back into her body with the hope of conceiving a baby. Emma Russell reports.

At 24, Alana Scott didn’t know if she would have children or if she would be alive to see them grow.

Flatting with friends in Grey Lynn while studying German and art history at university, her world collapsed when a doctor told her the reason she was dramatically losing weight was rectal cancer.

“My doctor wasn’t expecting it to be cancer because I was only 24. It was surreal and I don’t think I fully took it in at the time,” Scott told the Weekend Herald.

Her oncologist advised that radiation could leave her menopausal and there was no time for IVF treatment, to freeze her eggs, as her cancer was too aggressive.

She was, however, given the option to freeze the cancer-free part of her ovaries – even though surgery to insert them back into her body in 2010 was classed as “experimental” in New Zealand and therefore wasn’t available.

Fast-forward 12 years, Scott, now 36, is cancer-free and on Monday she will become the first woman in New Zealand to have her frozen ovaries implanted back into her body with the hope of conceiving a baby.

It’s a procedure only carried out about 1000 times around the world with some 140 babies born.

And a second woman is also lined up for the same surgery on the same day as Scott – with the Ministry of Health funding both operations with the intention of paving the way for other women.

This dream became a reality after Scott’s mum sent Health Minister Andrew Little a heart-felt email following years of advocating for the surgery by fertility doctors.

“It feels quite strange, I don’t think I have fully taken it in that it’s happening,” Scott said.

Scott decided she wanted the surgery after meeting her partner Todd. They meet seven years ago, when she was 28 and he was flatting with friends of hers.

“He’s nervous about the surgery and focused more on the fact that I’m having surgery, whereas I’m hoping it will work and looking forward a bit further, but he’s supportive.”

The two-hour surgery was planned for a year ago but it kept getting delayed due to the Covid pandemic putting a strain on our health system.

Alana Scott will be the first woman in New Zealand to have part of her frozen ovaries inserted back into her body with the hope of conceiving a baby. Photo / Dean Purcell
Alana Scott will be the first woman in New Zealand to have part of her frozen ovaries inserted back into her body with the hope of conceiving a baby. Photo / Dean Purcell

“It will be great if it works but I’m hesitant about getting too invested because I feel like with everything we’ve been through it’s not that likely but it’s an exciting possibility.”

Scott will have one night in hospital and was expected to take one to two weeks to recover.

“It’s really cool it’s happening because there’s more and more women getting ovarian tissue frozen,” Scott said.

Surgeon Dr Leigh Searle has performed the procedure six times in Australia.

The Wellington Hospital gynaecologist and fertility specialist furthered her training by spending one year in Melbourne to study options for cancer patients who are left infertile after cancer treatment but still want to have children.

She said while freezing eggs had helped so many parents have children, it wasn’t always an option for cancer patients because it took 14 days and sometimes they don’t have that long to wait before starting treatment.

“The other thing is if we are freezing ovarian tissue we then have thousands of eggs rather than the smaller amount of eggs from one cycle of IVF treatment which only gives about 10 to 15 eggs,” Searle said. This meant women had more chances of conceiving a baby.

She said this surgery could benefit so many women.

Wellington gynaecologist and fertility specialist Dr Leigh Searle. Photo / Supplied
Wellington gynaecologist and fertility specialist Dr Leigh Searle. Photo / Supplied

Even better the surgery could be an option for young girls who hadn’t yet had their period but had become infertile due to cancer treatment, Searle said.

“We can’t freeze their eggs because they haven’t gone through puberty but we can freeze their ovarian tissue.”

She said to date, only about 140 babies worldwide had been born through this surgery which had been performed nearly 1000 times.

“I’m really excited that we can finally do this New Zealand….it’s finally happening.”

How does the procedure work?

1. The frozen ovarian tissue is thawed by the researchers in the lab.

2. Pieces of ovarian tissue are made into really thin slices about .5cm in size and threaded onto a surgical suture which is delivered to the surgeon to operate.

4. The surgeon performs a laparoscopy which is a keyhole surgery using a camera which is inserted through the belly button. An incision is made through the abdomen and long instruments are used to insert the slices of ovarian tissue into the body.

5. The surgeon uses another device to make pockets in the pelvis to place the tissue for it graft in and develop its own blood supply.

6. If the graft works, the woman will start producing oestrogen which is the hormone responsible for reproducing. This can take four to five months. Then she can start IVF treatment.



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