Women at risk of losing their fertility due to cancer, premature ovarian failure (POF) or other causes may consider the option of freezing their eggs for future pregnancy.
Premature ovarian failure usually occurs in women under the age of 40 and can happen as early as the teen years. It is most often associated with cancer treatments, which can damage the ovaries and trigger the onset of menopause.
Women undergoing radiation cancer treatment to the lower abdomen or chemotherapy risk damaging or destroying their ovaries. With cancers that affect the reproductive organs, such as ovarian cancer and uterine cancer, the best treatment option may be surgery to remove those organs - meaning the woman can no longer get pregnant.
Genetic disorders, such as Turner syndrome, and autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, can also cause POF. In some cases, the cause is unknown.
Women at risk for POF can benefit from assisted reproductive methods for achieving pregnancy in the future. These options include in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create embryos while a woman's eggs are still available and viable. These embryos can be frozen until the woman wishes to have a pregnancy. If a woman's own eggs are not available, donor eggs can offer a chance for pregnancy.
Egg freezing offers a third choice for very young women and those who do not yet have a partner to create embryos with, and women who desire a biological connection to their future children.
Unlike sperm and embryos, which have been successfully frozen for years, eggs are considerably more difficult to freeze and thaw.
At the Reproductive Medicine Center, a highly specialized technique called vitrification is used to freeze eggs. Vitrification, which means “turning to glass,” freezes eggs very quickly, preventing the formation of ice crystals that can destroy the egg's structure.
The procedure for retrieving eggs for freezing is identical to the process used to retrieve eggs for IVF. Medications are used to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple eggs. When the eggs are judged to be mature, they are retrieved through an in-office procedure.
Once the eggs are collected, water is removed from the egg cells and the eggs are quickly frozen using the vitrification process. When a woman is ready to get pregnant, the eggs are quickly thawed in a reverse process. Since freezing may compromise the egg membrane and make it more difficult for sperm to penetrate the egg, eggs are fertilized using intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), an assisted reproductive technology that injects one sperm directly into an egg.
Resulting embryos are then implanted into the woman’s uterus with the hope that pregnancy will occur. To sustain the pregnancy, the woman takes additional medications and hormones to replace those naturally produced by her ovaries.