15 Sep Alert sounded for fertility damage due to some immunotherapy treatments
Researchers have discovered that some immunotherapy treatments used to treat cancer can cause fertility damage.
It means these treatments could affect the future fertility and hormonal health of female cancer survivors, prompting experts to call for more research and preventative measures, such as freezing eggs.
Traditional cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, are already linked to permanent, negative side effects on the ovaries. This can lead to infertility and premature menopause in young girls and women. Published in Nature Cancer, researchers found that checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy reduced the number and quality of their eggs, interfered with ovulation, and disrupted the fertility cycle.
Until now the potential fertility side effects of immunotherapy, an emerging and increasingly common cancer treatment that stimulates the immune system, have been unknown.
The study found that a type of immunotherapy called immune checkpoint inhibitors, which ‘release the brakes’ on the immune system to enhance a patient’s ability to fight cancer, could impair immediate and future fertility.
Its authors said studies in female patients were now needed to investigate the findings. In the meantime, fertility preservation through egg or embryo freezing should be considered for women using these immunotherapies.
Co-lead author Lauren Alesi, a PhD candidate in the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute Ovarian Biology Laboratory, said human studies must now be prioritised.
“Immunotherapy is now becoming a standard of care for many women with curable early stage breast cancer, due to impressive results in reducing breast cancer recurrences, but further research into the long-term effects of immunotherapy is needed.”
She said it was important to remember that embryo freezing was expensive, invasive and did not prevent ovarian damage. This meant that premature menopause could still be a risk for these women.
“Therefore, we are now prioritising investigation of targeted ovarian preservation strategies that aim to prevent the damage to the ovary from occurring in the first place, without interfering with the drugs’ ability to fight the cancer” she said.
Ms Alesi said other immunotherapy classes also need to be assessed.
“Our results may have implications for other immunotherapies, since our results have revealed a close relationship between immune cells, the communication molecules (cytokines) they release, and regulating many aspects of fertility,” she said.
Published in Nature Cancer, researchers found that checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy reduced the number and quality of their eggs, interfered with ovulation, and disrupted the fertility cycle.