Pregnancy raises prospect of menopause reversal

The world's first pregnancy after an ovarian transplant was announced today, raising the prospect of a reversal of the menopause and women becoming fertile in their later years.

The world's first pregnancy after an ovarian transplant was announced today, raising the prospect of a reversal of the menopause and women becoming fertile in their later years.

Scientists, who described the treatment as "stunning", said it would give hope to thousands of young women cancer sufferers who face being left infertile by treatment for their disease.

But the development raises ethical questions over advances in fertility treatment as it brings the possibility of women preserving their ovaries and becoming pregnant into their 60s, 70s or beyond.

Scientists have spent 15 years competing to be the first to transplant human ovaries and enable a woman to become pregnant after she has gone through the menopause.

The race has been won by a team of Belgian doctors, who presented their findings at an international fertility conference in Berlin today.

A 32-year-old Belgian woman, who had gone through an early menopause after treatment for cancer, is now pregnant with a girl, due in October.

More than 18,000 British women under the age of 44 are diagnosed with cancer each year, and treatment will leave 75 per cent of them infertile. Simon Davies, the chief executive of the Teenage Cancer Trust, said: "This is great news - it is fantastic. It is a new opportunity that is going to be worthwhile for cancer patients, especially younger ones, and will give them choices in the future."

The development represents one of the biggest achievements in fertility treatment over the past decade. Professor Jacques Donnez, head of the Department of Gynaecology and Andrology at the Cliniques Universitaires St Luc in Brussels, treated the woman who was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma and faced chemotherapy and radiotherapy which would have left her infertile. In 1997, before she had the cancer treatment, doctors removed a thin outer layer of her ovaries, in which most of the eggs are stored. The tissue was cut up in a petri dish and then put into a test tube before being "cryo-preserved" in a freezer at minus 196C.

Last year, after the woman had been treated for cancer and declared free of the disease, the ovarian tissue was transplanted back into her body, where it began functioning normally. The woman began having periods and in April a test found that she had conceived naturally by her husband and was 15 weeks pregnant. Professor Donnez is expected to publish his results in the New England Journal of Medicine later this year and was not available for comment. But in an interview with Belgian radio, he said: "She is pregnant. She lives a life which she could not hope she would be able to live in 1997. She knew that she was going to be post-menopausal, and now she is expecting a child, her own.

"It's her child genetically, growing from her tissue, and she fell pregnant completely naturally, through having sex. She is very happy."

He has beaten a Danish team and two sets of American researchers to the ultimate goal of proving that ovarian transplants can restore a woman's fertility after she has gone through the menopause.

All three other teams are presenting the results of their work at the same conference today but were generous in praise for Professor Donnez.

Professor Kutluk Oktay, of Cornell University in New York, leader of one of the competing teams, said yesterday: "The first pregnancy is quite tremendous. If he has done this then I am ecstatic. In science, we work as a team. For me, it is a pleasure to think that we have helped contribute towards a goal."

Dr Claus Yding Anderson, the leader of another team at the University Hospital of Copenhagen, was beaten by a whisker in his bid to achieve the first ovarian transplant pregnancy. He implanted an embryo into a 32-year-old woman who had undergone ovarian tissue removal and replacement but he will tell the conference today that the procedure did not result in a pregnancy.

Professor Anderson said: "This is stunning news and a real breakthrough. The aim is to use this to treat young women cancer sufferers but theoretically it means that women could remain fertile into their older years."

Josephine Quintavalle, director of the Committee on Reproductive Ethics, warned: "Fertility technology should not be used for couples who are not actually infertile in the normal sense, like menopausal women. We shouldn't be using this technology lightly. I sincerely hope this is not used for a lifestyle choice, for designing when you want to have children."

Professor Jack Scarisbrick, chairman of the anti-abortion charity Life, said he feared the technique would be "misused". He warned that menopausal women would try to "defeat nature" with the procedure.