Reporter: Allison Langdon
Producer: Sandra Cleary
It's the great dilemma of young women everywhere - how to build a successful career, without missing out on motherhood.
Now, doctors have found a new way for women to have babies well into middle age and beyond.
This revolutionary procedure is called ovarian tissue freezing. It quite literally puts a woman's biological clock on ice.
But here in Australia, the surgery is considered so controversial, it's only available to cancer patients; women who are left infertile by the very treatment that saves their lives.
For more information about freezing ovarian tissue at Melbourne IVF and the Women’s Hospital Melbourne visit www.mivf.com.au.
For more information about Dr Sherman Silber visit www.infertile.com.
STORY – ALLISON LANGDON: Nicole Paterson is about to undergo a revolutionary operation – her only chance of ever having a family. At just 25, Nicole is infertile – the terrible consequence of having cervical cancer four years ago.
NICOLE: That cut deeper than the cancer. I was more shattered that I couldn’t have children, as opposed to having cancer. I guess you don’t realise how much you want something until it’s taken away from you.
ALLISON LANGDON: But Nicole, from the Victorian coastal town of Torquay, was presented with an extraordinary new medical option – before beginning chemotherapy to battle the cancer, part of her ovary would be removed and frozen. To be kept on ice until she’s cancer-free and ready to have babies.
ALLISON LANGDON: Are you grateful that you had that procedure done four years ago?
NICOLE: Yes, yes, yes. I am so lucky! Yep, so lucky that I’ve got the opportunity to potentially have my own biological child.
ALLISON LANGDON: More than anything in the world, you want to be a mum?
NICOLE: Yeah, I just want to be a mum. Yeah. Wanna have a little bubba running around. Yeah, absolutely.
ALLISON LANGDON: Now, Nicole and her partner, Mark, are ready to try for kids. Have you talked about having a family together?
NICOLE: Yeah, definitely.
MARK: Yeah, all the time. Can’t wait.
ALLISON LANGDON: And put the heartaches of the past few years behind them. What do you think of Nicole, and how she’s handled everything she’s gone through?
MARK: Oh, she’s so brave, amazing. She’s such a brave girl, and I love her to bits.
ALLISON LANGDON: She’s had a really rough trot, hasn’t she?
MARK: Oh, I couldn’t imagine going through it. Sorry. Like, the person she is, she just – she doesn’t deserve it. Sorry. I just want the best for her.
ALLISON LANGDON: Nicole’s future as a mother is floating in this petri-dish, thanks to Ovarian Tissue Freezing.
KATE: So they are tiny little slices of ovary, and we’ve looped those together on a suture.
ALLISON LANGDON: These tiny pieces of ovary should restore Nicole’s fertility, according to Dr Kate Stern from Melbourne IVF.
KATE: For many young women, a diagnosis of cancer is such an enormous and traumatic event, that it is always fantastic to be able to say, “When you’re cured, we’ll be able to help you have children.”
ALLISON LANGDON: In the past, Nicole’s only hope would be to have individual eggs removed and frozen – preserving, at best, about ten eggs. But with Ovarian Tissue Freezing, a section of Nicole’s ovary was removed, sliced into tiny slivers, and put on ice. These will hopefully become an egg-producing factory.
KATE: Now that ovarian tissue potentially has hundreds, and even thousands of eggs. Eggs which can then go on and help make a baby. Potentially, we can put that tissue back and it will start making lots of good eggs to help a young woman have a baby.
ALLISON LANGDON: Do you know how extraordinary that sounds?
KATE: It is pretty amazing, isn’t it! To think that you can preserve eggs, which are going to give new life, in the laboratory. And then, hopefully when you graft that tissue back, those eggs will take on that new life. It is quite amazing. This is the ovarian tissue, here.
ALLISON LANGDON: Today, Dr Stern is about to put back 30 slices of Nicole’s ovarian tissue, thawed after four years in the freezer.
KATE: So this is the ovarian tissue, it’s going to be placed in this little tunnel, here.
ALLISON LANGDON: A small hole is cut into Nicole’s abdominal wall, and the tissue is grafted on. That’s just amazing to watch.
KATE: Ovarian tissue is now being placed in the tunnel.
ALLISON LANGDON: The blood supply should bring that tissue back to life, and Nicole will start producing eggs again – one of the first in Australia to do so. How long before you get an idea if it works?
KATE: Probably about four months. It takes a while to get the blood vessels forming and to get hormone production. We feel very optimistic that in the very near future we’re going to have the actual pinnacle of success for us, which will be helping someone to actually have a baby.
ALLISON LANGDON: And it could be Nicole’s?
KATE: I hope so. I really hope it is.
ALLISON LANGDON: How much joy has he brought into your life?
AMY: Oh, words cannot express how much joy, I mean.
ALLISON LANGDON: Two-year-old Grant is the child Amy Tucker only ever dreamed of having. At 19, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
AMY: I think it was hard to know that, like, the treatment that you get to save your life, renders you infertile. You know, and before this, women didn’t really have options, you know, to help.
SHERMAN: And we’re cutting this scarred cortex.
ALLISON LANGDON: Her only option back in 1997 was a then unheard-of procedure by Dr Sherman Silber, from St Louis, Missouri.
SHERMAN: Here we have the ovary, that is-
ALLISON LANGDON: Do you remember when you met Amy Tucker?
SHERMAN: I sure do. She was a real nice, little, scared 19-year-old. She came in facing death, cause she had a bad case, but she knew she wanted to preserve her fertility.
ALLISON LANGDON: You were basically his guinea pig, weren’t you?
AMY: Yes, yes, I was the third person in the US to actually get it out, and at that point, they hadn’t put it back in another human. Now, it had worked on sheep and rats, so Dr Silber’s theory was that we could get it to work in humans as well.
SHERMAN: And you went through a lot of recurrences, didn’t you?
ALLISON LANGDON: 11 years after that tissue was frozen, Amy got the baby she so wanted - and more have followed in the wake of that early success.
SHERMAN: Using ovarian tissue, we’ve had, um, 14 babies already, from just our centre. I know there has been over 35 around the world. And the babies were all normal, and in fact, it’s pretty well proven, you know.
ALLISON LANGDON: That this is a safe option for women.
SHERMAN: That is very clear, it’s a safe option. Yep. But this is the most romantic way to get pregnant. Because you’re working at it together, you’re working at it together, you’re seeing the embryo. I mean, it’s not just some-
PATIENT: Nobody’s drunk.
SHERMAN: Yeah, nobody’s drunk.
ALLISON LANGDON: Now, this 70-year-old pioneer wants to take this technology into a new and controversial realm. Dr Silber believes that Ovarian Tissue Freezing is the future of fertility for all women, not just those who have had cancer.
TECHNICIAN: There’s the piece I was looking at.
SHERMAN: There’s absolutely no question, if you talk about it rationally, every young girl in her twenties ought to have eggs frozen, or a piece of her ovarian tissue frozen. It’s as simple as that.
ALLISON LANGDON: You know a lot of people think that’s outrageous?
SHERMAN: Oh yes, yes. Well, it sounds outrageous doesn’t it? But, seriously, two things happen as you age: one is the egg number drastically goes down, but even the egg quality goes down. So, what you can do is just, at 45, she can have her 23-year-old ovary put back.
ALLISON LANGDON: It’s putting your biological clock on ice, isn’t it?
SHERMAN: You’re putting it on ice. It’s fertility in the freezer.
ALLISON LANGDON: For years, Julie, a successful surgeon, had put her career ahead of motherhood. Do you regret not having a baby earlier in your life?
JULIE: Oh, sure. Yeah.
ALLISON LANGDON: Why didn’t you?
JULIE: Oh, I’ll probably cry. Um, timing. You know, it wasn’t the right time, which is what I think a lot of women think. Um, and – just didn’t.
ALLISON LANGDON: You felt there was going to be plenty of time?
ALLISON LANGDON: At the age of 37, Julie realised time was running out, so she had Dr Silber freeze her ovarian tissue. Now, married and 41, she’s ready to try for a baby.
JULIE: I feel like it’s an insurance policy. And you feel like, maybe it’s a little bit of false security, but at the same time, there’s still an option there. And I know that for a lot of women, again, it’s not an option.
SHERMAN: It’s amazing, we have a whole city in there.
ALLISON LANGDON: But helping women like Julie is so controversial that Dr Silber’s clinic is one of just two worldwide providing this service to women without cancer. That’s not allowed in Australia, and Dr Kate Stern strongly believes it should stay that way.
KATE: For young, well, women, I feel that that’s a technically risky procedure, which may potentially damage their ovaries for the future, and also is not guaranteed to give them a baby. So we are much more conservative in terms of that. And so, our message to women is that, you should really not put off having children.
ALLISON LANGDON: Shouldn’t we just be telling women to have babies earlier?
SHERMAN: People have tried that, telling women to have babies earlier, and it’s been met with – that has been met with complete disdain, and thought of as very condescending.
ALLISON LANGDON: Can you see the day when it will be commonplace, when women have this done?
SHERMAN: No question. It has to. A good idea will always rise to the top. Yeah, for sure.
ALLISON LANGDON: What would a baby mean to you?
NICOLE: I think I’ll be complete. It would be - yeah, it would be everything.
ALLISON LANGDON: Proof that you’ve beaten cancer.
NICOLE: Yep. Yep! And just got what I always wanted.
ALLISON LANGDON: For Nicole, it’s now a waiting game to see if her ovarian tissue is producing eggs.
NICOLE: It’s given me hope. It’s given me a little bit more of a jump in my step, I guess, thinking, oh this may happen, I may be a mummy one day. Yeah, it’s exciting.
ALLISON LANGDON: Having been dealt such a rough hand so young in life, she’s looking forward to all that might lie ahead.
NICOLE: Hopefully marriage, kids, healthy life, happy life.
ALLISON LANGDON: Just the fairytale?
NICOLE: Just the fairytale, I want the fairytale. I mean, I want the ring on the finger, I want a kid. Oh, I want it all.
ALLISON LANGDON: If Nicole’s ovarian tissue successfully takes hold, she'll still need a surrogate to carry her baby. But both of her sisters have already volunteered. We'll be sure to let you know how Nicole and her partner Mark get along.