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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Lance Armstrong Foundation Funds Project to Safeguard Fertility of Young Cancer Patients

PITTSBURGH, February 28, 2007 To protect the future fertility of boys diagnosed with cancer, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers have received $120,000 from the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The Pitt research team was awarded a grant of $110,000 over the next two years and was chosen to receive the J. Lee Walker Imagination Award one of only two awarded annually that includes an additional $10,000 in funding.

Treatment for childhood cancers often includes high doses of chemotherapy and radiation that can be very harmful to a child's reproductive organs. In boys, cancer therapy can irreversibly destroy stem cells in the testes, leading to their inability to produce sperm when they reach adulthood. In children treated repeatedly for cancer relapses or certain high-risk leukemias, adult infertility can be as high as 70 percent.

As treatment for childhood cancer has become more successful in saving lives, there are more and more survivors seeking help from fertility clinics because of irreversible damage to their reproductive organs from high-dose treatment, said Jens Ehmcke, Ph.D., principle investigator of the project and research assistant professor, department of cell biology and physiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. This project could have an extremely beneficial impact on general quality of life for survivors by giving them the option to start their own families in the future.

One way researchers have sought to protect the fertility of these patients is by preserving a biopsy of tissue from the testicles that contains stems cells before they begin cancer therapy. The Pitt research group already has shown in pre-clinical studies involving non-human primates that it is possible to retrieve sperm from testicular biopsies after maturing them for a few months by grafting the tissue into immunodeficient mice. They will use the current funding to expand these studies to pre-pubertal human testicular tissue, which will be grafted into mice for 3-5 months, followed by the attempt to retrieve sperm from the matured tissue. The sperm will then be frozen and evaluated using the same routine procedures used in fertility clinics.

If this method is successful, we will be one step closer to offering a simple solution to boys with cancer that may give them the ability to make their own choices about reproduction later in life, said Dr. Ehmcke.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation has awarded more than $14 million in research and community grants to help people with the physical, emotional and practical challenges of cancer. It was founded in 1997 by cancer survivor and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong and is located in Austin, Texas.


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