$21 Million Grant to Fund Fertility Preservation
|Dr. Teresa Woodruff (center) discusses the role of hormone fluctuations in disease with Drs. Monica Buzzai (left) and Kim Rice, hematology/oncology fellows at the Feinberg School.|
Teresa K. Woodruff, PhD, is the principal investigator on a $21 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will focus on developing fertility preservation techniques for women and girls diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Woodruff is the Thomas J. Watkins Professor of Obsterics and Gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, chief of the Division of Fertility Preservation, and professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology. She is also director of Northwestern’s Institute for Women’s Health Research and the basic science programs of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
The five-year, renewable grant is part of the NIH’s Interdisciplinary Research Consortium Program, an initiative to encourage research on public health issues from a collaborative perspective. The grant stands to have a profound effect on the development of the field of “oncofertility,” a term coined by Dr. Woodruff that joins the fields of oncology and reproductive medicine. In 2000 approximately 2.5 million adults of childbearing age were cancer survivors, and by 2010 it is estimated that 1 of every 250 adults will be survivors of childhood cancer. However, cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation that save lives can also compromise one’s ability to conceive children.
Dr. Woodruff’s collaborative, interdisciplinary nature is reflected in the structure of the oncofertility program that has been funded. The program consists of 10 separate grants, each with its own lead investigator. Two grants focus on follicle preservation, while one examines bioengineering of primate follicles. A fourth grant will fund a biomaterials core, and another grant will establish the National Physicians Cooperative to Preserve Fertility for Female Cancer Patients. Yet another grant will fund a social science examination of oncofertility. Two grants have an education focus (Learning Modules in Oncofertility and Training the Globally Ready Scholar), while another focuses on measuring fertility in young cancer patients. Perhaps most significant of all is a grant to fund the Oncofertilitiy Consortium, which will partner with other academic institutions to study the impact of cancer and its treatment on reproductive health. Consortium members will include biomedical and social scientists, oncologists, pediatricians, engineers, educators, social workers, medical ethicists, and others from Northwestern, University of California at San Diego, Oregon Health and Science University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Missouri.
The consortium will also explore the social implications of infertility and cancer, inequalities in access to reproductive medicine, and how medical decisions related to cancer and fertility are made. To help educate physicians and patients, community outreach events will be held and online forums established discussing fertility risk due to cancer and current options for patients.
Holder of five patents, Dr. Woodruff was instrumental in understanding the role of the hormones inhibin and activin in the menstrual cycle and contributed to the development of inhibin and activin assays used to diagnose Down syndrome pregnancies. Among the many research projects to be funded by this grant is her work to develop techniques to mature ovarian follicles in the laboratory. Ovarian tissue from women and girls with cancer would be removed and cryopreserved before cancer treatment, then thawed when the patient decided to have children. From the thawed tissue, ovarian follicles could be removed and matured in vitro, then fertilized. The resulting embryo would be implanted in the woman or a surrogate mother. This technique has already resulted in live, healthy mice born from follicles grown in culture. Dr. Woodruff believes this technology could become part of routine cancer care for women within five years.