Cancer treatment is an extremely trying experience, and undergoing chemotherapy takes a serious toll on patients who are already in distress. The treatment’s remedial potential is sometimes overshadowed by its painful side effects; nausea, hair loss, and depressive symptoms are just a few of the debilitating outcomes.   

Women with cancer who want to become pregnant often have to put these dreams on hold, as chemotherapy can temporarily or even permanently affect fertility.  

But a new innovation from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine could give women renewed hope, with the prospect of starting a family as a light at the end of the tunnel.

A new, gentler chemo drug and advanced testing methods, described in the journal PLOS ONE, are a boon for female cancer patients worried about hurting their chances of fertility. In fact, this new drug, invented by a husband and wife team, could actually boost fertility while attacking cancer cells more effectively.

How Does it Work?

The nanoparticle chemo drug is an arsenic trioxide that targets cancerous tumors. While that sounds toxic, the arsenic is encapsulated in a nanobin, which is a tiny bubble of fat that acts like a shield to protect vulnerable tissues. It’s gentle on the body, but still packs a major punch.

"You have to wallop the tumor with a significant dose of arsenic, but at the same time prevent exposure to normal tissue from the drug," said Dr. Thomas O'Halloran, director of the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute at Northwestern in a press release.

Chemotherapy is known for its harsh impact on the body, but in the study, ovarian tissue, follicles, and eggs were kept in tact. This form of arsenic is low-dose and less toxic than free, unbound arsenic, which was also tested in rodents.

Researchers used an innovative in vitro test to determine the ferotoxicity (fertility toxicity) of the drug in relation to ovarian and follicle function, in addition to regular in vivo (within the body) tests, making this research particularly cutting-edge. 

What Does This Mean for the Future of Cancer Treatment?

Far more possibilities may lie ahead for this drug; preserving fertility is just the beginning.

"The system can be adapted very easily for any cancer drug under development to get an early peek under the tent,” said Dr. Teresa Woodruff, Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Feinberg in a press release. "As this new drug goes forward in development, we can say this is a good drug for young female cancer patients who are concerned about fertility.”

Until now, women have had to plan their chemotherapy treatments around their family planning needs.

"Many cancer drugs cause sterilization. That's why the reproductive tract is really important to focus on in the new stages of drug design,” said O’Halloran. “Other body systems get better when people stop taking the drug, but fertility you can't recover.”

Patients, regardless of their gender, need cancer treatments that won’t permanently wreck their bodies. This new drug is an excellent start, and may ease the pain of an already trying treatment regimen.

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