An infertile woman gives birth after experimental treatment

A 30-year-old infertile woman has given birth to a healthy baby boy in Japan after surgeons performed an experimental ovary treatment. The breakthrough, while preliminary, gives hope to other women with fertility problems.

Top image: Dr. Kazuhiro Kawamura, the physician who performed the experimental surgery, is seen holding the newborn. (Associated press/Kazuhiro Kawamura).

The baby was born in Tokyo last December, but the research paper describing the treatment just came out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The woman was diagnosed with primary ovarian insufficiency, also called premature menopause. It's a fairly common form of infertility that appears in about 1% of women of childbearing age. The exact cause is unknown, but it's characterized by an ovary that has trouble producing eggs. Typically, women with POI have only a 5-10% chance of conceiving, so the standard treatment is to use a donor's eggs. Scientists suspect, however, that the problem has something to do with missing or malfunctioning follicles, the place where eggs mature in the ovary.

For the experimental surgery, Dr. Kazuhiro Kawamura of the St. Marianna University School of Medicine in Kawasaki, Japan, along with colleagues, removed the hopeful mother's ovaries and cut them into strips, which were then frozen. Later, they were thawed and cut into tiny cubes — a step that stimulated maturation of the follicles. The cubes were then treated with drugs to stimulate their further development. The cubes were then transplanted just under the surface of the woman's fallopian tubes.

After six months, the mother showed signs of follicle maturation. She was then able to produce viable eggs that were fertilized with her husband's sperm. The resulting embryo was then transplanted.

In all, the experimental procedure was performed on 27 patients, of which only five were able to produce eggs. Of those, one went on to have a miscarriage, one failed to get pregnant, while the other two have not yet attempted pregnancy.

But for the woman who conceived, her baby is doing well. The procedure gives hope to women with PIO — and to women in their early 40s who are having difficulty getting pregnant on account of their age.

However, as the CBC reports, experts caution that the results are very preliminary:

"It shows a lot of promise [but] I don't think it's even close to being ready" for routine use, said Dr. Mark Sauer of the Columbia University Medical Center in New York. Dr. Amber Cooper of Washington University in St. Louis called the technique "very much an experimental method."

The reported efficiency is very low, and the possible health risk to babies born from the method is unknown, said David Albertini of the University of Kansas Medical Center.

"One success does not mean we have a treatment … Stay tuned," he said.

He and others were also skeptical of the researcher's suggestion that the procedure would help women between ages 40 and 45. Eggs from women of that age often show genetic abnormalities, many of which would prevent a live birth, said Dr. Marcelle Cedars of the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. Stimulating egg production wouldn't overcome that problem, she said.

Read the entire study in PNAS: “Hippo signaling disruption and Akt stimulation of ovarian follicles for infertility treatment.”