AUG 12, 2017 10:51 AM PDT

How Chemotherapy Affects the Female Fetus

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Image credit: Pixabay.com

Chemotherapy works against cancer by poisoning the cells. As such, few chemotherapy agents are safely prescribed to expectant women. Now, the list of available drugs shrink even further, as scientists find etoposides may affect not only the mother, but also damage the germ cells of the unborn daughter. This could mean girls born to mothers who were treated with etoposides during pregnancy could have reduced fertility outcome and even earlier menopause.

Etoposides are often used to treat leukemia, lymphoma, ovarian cancer, and testicular cancer. It works as a topoisomerase inhibitor, blocking the cancer cells’ ability to divide. This drug is considered to be safe for pregnant women in their second and third trimester of pregnancy (from 4 to 9 months).
 
But whether etoposides cause long-term health effects to the fetus has yet to be explored fully. “Studies looking at the effects of taking chemotherapy drugs during pregnancy have focused on the immediate effects, such as increased miscarriage rates or severe fetal abnormalities," said Norah Spears, scientist at the University of Edinburgh and senior author of the study.
 
To investigate chemotherapy in pregnancy, Spears and her team exposed fetal and neonatal mouse ovaries to etoposides. In particular, they timed the exposure to when the fetal ovarian follicles had yet to fully enclose an immature oocyte, an egg cell.
 


They found that this led to significant follicle deaths that correspond to the intensity of the etoposide doses. That is, at medium doses, follicle death rate was 72 percent, whereas at high doses, follicle death rate was 90 percent.
 
"In a study involving mouse tissue, we have shown that etoposide can damage the development of the ovaries while a fetus is in the womb. The drug affects the germ cells in the ovaries, which are the cells that give rise to eggs. This is important because it could mean that the fertility of the offspring could be affected in later life," explained Spears.
 
Unlike men, a woman’s biological reproductive potential (in terms of eggs), is set even before she is born. As such, the finding that a female fetus’ germ cells die in response to her mother’s chemotherapy treatment is highly worrisome.
 
"This study suggests that chemotherapy treatment may have important longer term effects on the babies of women who undergo chemotherapy while pregnant which would only become apparent in adulthood,” said Spears. “If the results we have seen in these mouse studies are found to be replicated in humans, some of that germ cell supply would be lost, which could later result in early menopause, thus reducing the woman's fertility window.” Spears cautions that the further research is needed to understand how etoposides may affect human fetuses. 
 

Additional sources: University of Edinburgh press release, MNT

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
OCT 14, 2019
Cancer
OCT 14, 2019
Will a Capsule Do Away With Colon Cancer Screening Prep?
While the official colon cancer screening guidelines say people with an average risk for colon cancer should start to get screened starting at age 50, only...
OCT 14, 2019
Cancer
OCT 14, 2019
Could electromagnetic fields treat metastatic triple-negative breast cancer?
New research published in Communications Biology suggests that electromagnetic fields are capable of stopping the metastasis of some breast cancer cells. I...
OCT 14, 2019
Drug Discovery & Development
OCT 14, 2019
Comparison of Three Frontline Breast Cancer Drugs
Breast cancer affects 250,000 women in the U.S. annually. Those with most common form test positive for hormone receptors (HR+) and negative for the HER2 r...
OCT 14, 2019
Cardiology
OCT 14, 2019
Exercise Produces Greater Benefits In Those With Cardiovascular Disease
The fact that exercise benefits the heart and can help a person live a longer healthier life is well established. Exercising regularly can improve quality...
OCT 14, 2019
Cancer
OCT 14, 2019
Cancer drugs don't work the way we thought
New research recently published in the journal Science Translational Medicine surprises the oncological community with findings that a protein previously t...
OCT 14, 2019
Cell & Molecular Biology
OCT 14, 2019
New Type of CAR T-Cell Therapy Headed for Clinical Trials
Scientists have been trying to use the immune system in cancer patients' bodies to fight cancer....
Loading Comments...