A leukaemia drug may save the fertility of women undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, research has found.
Scientists uncovered a biological mechanism that explains why cancer treatments can trigger a premature menopause.
The study also also found that the process can be blocked by imatinib (Glivec), which is normally given to leukaemia patients.
Although a woman’s eggs can be removed and frozen before chemotherapy for later attempts at In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment, this approach is not always successful.
The research is still at an early stage, but the Italian scientists writing in Nature Medicine believe their findings have “considerable medical implications”.
They are now calling for the work to be followed up in preparation for testing the treatment on patients.
Many chemotherapy drugs employ a compound called cisplatin, or similar agents, which activate a cell-death signalling pathway.
The effect is to instruct cancer cells to commit suicide, or self-destruct - a process known as apoptosis. Often cancer goes unchecked because the normal cell-death safety mechanism is bypassed.
However cisplatin also induces DNA damage and death in immature egg cells, resulting in a loss of follicles - the ovary “pockets” in which eggs are nurtured - and infertility. Eggs that survive to be fertilised may give rise to offspring with genetic abnormalities.
The Italian researchers led by Dr Stefania Gonfloni, from the University of Rome, found that an enzyme called c-Abl played a key role in passing on the self-destruct instruction to egg cells.