The technique could potentially give a 40 year-old the fertility level of someone half her age, said Dr Sherman Silber, who carried out the world’s first whole ovary transplant in 2007.
Thin slivers of ovaries containing tens of thousands of eggs can now be surgically removed and frozen indefinitely, a procedure costing about £4,000, Dr Silber said. Removing a one millimetre-thin graft had no effect on a woman’s chance of conceiving naturally in the meantime if she so chose, he added.
To date his team in St Louis, Missouri, has removed ovarian grafts from about 140 women. The procedure was developed as a way of preserving the fertility of women who had to undergo cancer treatment. But Dr Silber said increasing numbers of women were coming to him solely because they wanted to delay motherhood. About 60 of the women have had ovarian grafts to fit in with their way of life.
He urged healthy women to consider the half-hour operation in their 20s.
He said of his present clients: “These women all come to us aged 35 or 38 after they’ve broken up with their boyfriend of 10 years and they are worried about the future.” Women should think about it earlier when they have more, better quality eggs.
Then they could “relax” and wait until 40 to have a baby if they so desired, he said, safe in the knowledge they had “a 25-year-old ovary” waiting for them. The procedure could feasibly replace IVF, he argued, explaining that the main cause of infertility in women over 30 was declining egg quality.
“None of these women really need IVF after this treatment. If you freeze these ovaries at a young age, you don’t have to worry,” he said.
Dr Silber also said the price of an ovarian graft was much less than the “prohibitively expensive” cost of going through numerous IVF cycles.
The number of ovarian grafts that have been used by women to become pregnant, remains small. His clinic has returned grafts to 11 women since 2008, who have given birth to 12 babies. Worldwide, 23 babies have been born as a result of grafts, across seven clinics. Fourteen were born as a result of frozen graft transplants, while nine have been from fresh grafts from identitical twin sister donors. No British clinic is yet offering the service.
But Dr Silber said the procedure was “robust” and took a few days’ training for a competent surgeon to master.
Tony Rutherford, the chairman of the British Fertility Society, said he was more cautious. “If it’s performed in lesser hands it might not be quite as effective.” He called for a “worldwide register” of graft operations. “Only then can we give patients realistic figures about whether it’s going to work or not.”
Susan Seenan, of Infertility Network UK, said: “I would have to urge caution. The best time to have children is when a woman is younger.”