CHICAGO — A commonly used drug can help young women with breast cancer retain the ability to have babies, apparently protecting their ovaries from the damage caused by chemotherapy, researchers reported here Friday.
The treatment could provide a new option for dealing with one of the painful dilemmas faced by young cancer patients — that doing the utmost to save their lives might impair or even ruin their fertility.
Researchers said that the drug goserelin, which temporarily shuts down the ovaries, appears to protect fertility. In a clinical trial, women who were given goserelin injections along with chemotherapy had less ovarian failure and gave birth to more babies than women receiving only the chemotherapy.
“It’s not a panacea, but based on these data, it may be the right choice for some patients,” said Dr. Ann H. Partridge, a breast cancer specialist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and an author of the study, which is being presented in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Partridge said about 16,000 US women younger than 45 get breast cancer each year. Impaired fertility from chemotherapy is also a problem for women and men with other types of cancer and for children who survive the disease, though it is not clear whether the results of this study would apply to them, she said.
Goserelin is sold by AstraZeneca under the brand name Zoladex. Global sales of the drug were about $1 billion in 2013.
Goserelin and similar drugs, known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists, are commonly used as hormonal therapies to treat breast and prostate cancer. They are also used at fertility clinics to control the timing of ovulation.
The main option now for young breast cancer patients wanting to increase their chances of having babies is to have multiple eggs removed from their ovaries, as is done for in vitro fertilization. The eggs can be frozen or used to create embryos, which are then frozen.
But that is an invasive procedure costing thousands of dollars, and in some cases women have to start chemotherapy so quickly they do not have the two to three weeks needed to undergo the egg retrieval process.
Injections of goserelin could be a less expensive and easier alternative. But until now, studies testing it have reported inconsistent results. The oncology society’s guidelines say there is insufficient evidence that the approach is effective and that it “should not be relied on to preserve fertility.”
Partridge, who is on the committee that developed the guidelines, said she thought they would have to be reviewed in light of the new study.