In The Field

ESHRE: Protecting fertility in cancer patients

Just heard some results that could mean good news for male cancer patients. Alon Carmely from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, says he’s hopeful that a drug that enhances the immune system could help protect men’s testes from the effects of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy targets cancer by killing dividing cells, so the side effects include hair loss (the drug kills the hair follicles), bone marrow depletion and infertility. Patients about to undergo treatment tend to freeze samples of sperm, but researchers would love to find a way to enable them to hang on to their fertility instead.

A drug called AS101 is already used in cancer patients as it enhances the immune system in a way that seems to make cancer cells more susceptible to treatment, and normal cells less susceptible. It has also been found to protect patients from hair loss, and bone marrow depletion. How it does this isn’t really understood, but the compound, which is based on the element tellurium and apparently smells like garlic, seems to affect the immune system by several different mechanisms.

So Carmely and his colleagues decided to see whether AS101 could help protect sperm. They’ve tested it in mice so far. In animals injected with high doses of chemotherapeutic drugs such as Taxol, the testes were pretty much destroyed – afterwards much of the tissue had died, and the seminiferous tubules, in which sperm is produced, were empty. When the mice were given the same doses alongside AS101, there was much less damage, with plenty of sperm surviving.

Carmely now needs to check that the post-treatment sperm have healthy DNA. But assuming that’s the case he’s confident of being able to start clinical trials in 6-12 months. He thinks it’s possible the drug could help protect fertility in female cancer patients too, but says that work will take a fair bit longer.


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