Fertility - Pushing Back the Frontiers on Ageing; in a New Development Ovary Banks Could Form Part of Further Steps in Prolonging Women's Fertility. Ros Dodd Asks Will This Present More Ethical Dilemmas

Article excerpt

In the space of four decades, science has handed women one of the greatest gifts of all - the means to control when and if they have children.

First came the contraceptive pill, which allowed women to enjoy the same sexual freedom as men without the fear of an unwanted pregnancy.

Then, just over 20 years ago, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) came to the aid of those who did want to get pregnant but were unable to conceive naturally. The birth of Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, gave hope to millions of couples who longed for parenthood.

Now the medical world has gone one step further - by carrying out the first successful ovary transplant.

The surgery - known as an ovary graft - was performed in New York last February on 30-year-old American dancer Margaret Lloyd-Hart who had gone through a surgically-induced menopause.

It was used to put back her own ovary tissue, which had been previously removed and frozen. Afterwards, her ovary was stimulated with hormones and produced an egg.

Although Professor Roger Gosden, the British scientist who masterminded the revolutionary technique, warned yesterday it was too early to judge whether the surgery could help other women, ovary transplants look set to have a more profound effect on human fertility than IVF. They raise the possibility of ovary banks being set up to extend women's fertility into their late sixties.

But is this latest medical breakthrough good news, or will it present society with yet more ethical dilemmas?

It is already possible for post-menopausal women to become mothers through egg donation. The case of Liz Buttle, the Welsh farmer who gave birth to a son at the age of 60, caused widespread controversy. Was it morally right, many people asked, for a woman in the autumn of her life to have a child?

If ovary transplantation becomes as successful a technique as IVF, it will make it easier for older women to become pregnant.

A test could be developed to assess a woman's complement of eggs so that she knows when she is running out. Once she is aware of her "ovarian age", ovarian tissue could be stored and returned to the body after menopause to restore fertility.

This is just one of its uses, however. As well as treating sterility caused by premature menopause, ovary grafting could protect fertility in patients.

The transplants could also be a better, and safer, substitute for the widely-used hormone replacement therapy (HRT): restoring ovarian tissue to the body post-menopause would maintain a "youthful" hormone balance.

Dr Peter Bromwich, who runs the Aldridge-based Midland Fertility Services, yesterday hailed the ovary graft technique as "exciting" and said his clinic was "right behind" 51-year-old Prof Gosden.

"I'm sure this technique is going to work, although there are lots of problems to be ironed out," he said. "It helps us understand more about the way the human ovaries work."

The freezing of women's ovaries has been going on for some time, prompted largely by Prof Gosden's research.

At both Dr Bromwich's clinic, the IVF unit at Birmingham's Priory Hospital and Birmingham Women's Hospital, ovaries are preserved in the hope that, some time in future, patients will be able to benefit from the new technique. …