Dr. Atefeh Najafi (PhD) gives a tour of the Benson Cryobiology Lab to a group of high school students. (Photo: Royal University Hospital Foundation)

USask researchers aim to make cancer fertility preservation program a reality

Dr. James Benson (PhD) and Dr. Laura Hopkins (MD) believe the University of Saskatchewan (USask) has the tools to provide groundbreaking cancer treatment services to women across Canada.

By Matt Olson

Dr. James Benson (PhD) is one of the world’s leading experts in cryobiology – research surrounding biological samples in lower-than-normal temperatures. 

And in Canada, he’s one of a select few doing research in reproductive cryobiology. 

Benson is an associate professor in USask’s Department of Biology in the College of Arts and Science. He is also part of a cohort of researchers attempting to establish a one-of-a-kind cryobiology research program at USask to support women and girls diagnosed with cancer. 

“I think it hits on a lot of different levels,” he said. “We’re really providing a service for women, but especially girls in need at a particularly vulnerable time. And the fact that we’ve got the infrastructure in place means that USask can be a beacon of hope.” 

Ovarian tissue cryopreservation is a relatively newer medical procedure that can give women and especially girls diagnosed with cancer the opportunity to have their own children in the future. Ovarian tissue cryopreservation involves removing and preserving unaffected tissue before the ovaries are damaged by cancer treatments including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. 

Later in life, after cancer has been cured, the preserved ovarian tissue can be re-implanted to allow for a biological child to be born. Benson said the process has been proven to help children, adolescents and women of reproductive age have healthy babies. 

As Benson puts it, ovarian tissue cryopreservation has recently moved past the non-experimental phase and into public use. Facilities in Europe and the United States have clinical and research programs for ovarian tissue cryopreservation in place, but it’s not widely available in Canada. 

“There is no option in Saskatchewan for some women and most girls with cancer that want to have fertility preservation,” Benson said. “Some women can preserve their egg cells before treatment, but girls don’t have any mature egg cells. The only option they have is to freeze this tissue. There’s been a number of successes around the world. It’s a great program that just needs to be offered here.” 

Dr. Laura Hopkins (MD), a professor in the Division of Oncology in USask’s College of Medicine and the provincial lead for gynecologic oncology, said this kind of service could give women back a choice taken away from them by cancer. Per Hopkins, pediatric ovarian tissue is particularly vulnerable to the effects of cancer treatments and the only way to salvage function for girls under 13 is with ovarian tissue cryopreservation technology. 

“Being treated for cancer, whether it’s surgery, chemo or radiation, is isolating for everyone, and I think there’s a real loss of confidence and hope for the future,” she said. “These kids also face a loss of fertility and a loss of potential to have normal hormone production for sustaining health. Fortunately, most children nowadays are cured of their cancer. They are cancer survivors, and we need this program to give them their lives back.” 

Hopkins also noted that implementing a cryopreservation program would help Saskatchewan meet the guidelines of care and fertility preservation as laid out by the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing reproductive sciences in Canada. 

Both Benson and Hopkins believe USask could pioneer this sort of program throughout Western Canada due to the unique expertise of USask faculty and the facilities that already exist at the university. 

Hopkins received funding in 2021 for the furthering of ovarian cancer pharmaceutical and diagnostic research, as well as to establish a tumour bank at USask to safely store and study removed cancerous tissue. In addition, Benson said there are many researchers with cryobiology experience at USask including those at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). 

“By building this program, we could be modeling what the future state of a program in ovarian cryopreservation should look like,” Hopkins said. “We happen to have James Benson here and I feel like all of us should do everything to support unique talent within the institution.” 

Krysta Hawryluk is a patient of Hopkins, and a prime example of a fertility preservation program is more important than a hypothetical. In early 2020, Hawryluk believed she had endometriosis until testing diagnosed her with ovarian cancer. She received her diagnosis in early July, and before the end of the month she had surgery to remove her ovaries. 

When she was diagnosed in Saskatchewan, the option of cryopreservation was never an option. Hawryluk had the surgery to save her from her cancer at the age of 28, and was left without the ability to have her own children.  

“During that time, I would have taken any chance, I would have taken a two per cent chance to have a baby,” Hawryluk said. “Any kind of hope is just enough when you’re dealing with something as serious as your health.” 

Hawryluk has since been a strong advocate for this service to be available in Saskatchewan and throughout Canada. When she learned from Hopkins that this kind of treatment exists but wasn’t available to her in her home province, Hawryluk admitted it made her angry – which is the reason she’s become so dedicated to assisting Benson and Hopkins make this program a reality. 

“I think that everyone should have that opportunity to make the choice to have their own children. Having that choice taken away from me was the hardest because … whether you can have a child or not shouldn’t be fate’s decision,” she said. 

Both Hopkins and Benson are hopeful that a program can be established with the support of institutions and health-care professionals to provide the best possible care to patients like Hawryluk. 

“This is an evolving science where the success rates are going up every year as the technology advances,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got the scientific expertise, and we also have the need to make this ovarian tissue cryopreservation available to patients in Saskatchewan.” 

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