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Ethical Implications of Investigational Fertility Preservation Research

The goal of oncofertility is to preserve the future fertility of cancer patients and ensure they have reproductive choice after they’ve finished treatment. Not all methods of fertility preservation are considered “established” techniques meaning they are viewed as experimental and must be offered under Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols (an IRB is a committee that has been designated to approve, monitor, and review biomedical research involving humans in order to protect the rights and welfare of the research subjects).

Oocyte and ovarian tissue cryopreservation are two separate techniques that still need basic and clinical research before they can become established methods of fertility preservation. As a result, research participants are needed for the use of oocytes and ovarian tissue. This creates the question, “who is the most appropriate population to participate in investigational fertility preservation research?”

Populations who have participated in research or who have been suggested as good potential participants are: cancer patients, fertility patients, women who are already donating oocytes for reproduction and healthy research volunteers donating oocytes or ovarian tissue for the sole purpose of research.  Each group comes with their own ethical and theoretical challenges, but for the sake of time, we’ll focus specifically on cancer patients.

In the case of ovarian tissue cryopreservation, researchers rely primarily on cancer patients for ovarian tissue, allowing patients to donate up to 20% of their ovarian tissue for research purposes. According to Michelle McGowan, PhD, in “Participation in Investigational Fertility Preservation Research: A Feminist Research Ethics Approach,” there is a concern that cancer patients who participate in investigational fertility preservations studies “may raise the potential for false hope both for fertility preservation and for cancer treatment.” McGowan argues that even though cancer patients are in a position to benefit from the outcomes of the research, they are also the most vulnerable because they may not understand that a technique is still considered investigational.  This means that there is a possibility they may remain infertile after the procedure.

Nonetheless, while there are certain drawbacks associated with each potential research participant population, cancer patients are the most ideal candidates for research since they are the ones who will benefit from their outcomes the most.  Healthy research participants risk damaging their reproductive health by participating in investigational fertility preservation research whereas a cancer patient’s fertility is already at risk so participation may be the best option for preserving their future fertility.  To learn more about the ethical implications of participation in fertility preservation research, please read, “Participation in Investigational Fertility Preservation Research: A Feminist Research Ethics Approach,” by Michelle McGowan, PhD., in Oncofertility: Ethical, Legal, Social and Medical Perspectives. To learn about joining a research study involving ovarian tissue cryopreservation, contact the national FERTLINE at 866-708-FERT (3378).

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