Dr. James Benson (PhD) is a globally recognized authority in cryobiology – the research study of biological specimens at below-standard temperatures. In Canada, he is among the few specializing in reproductive cryobiology research.
Benson serves as an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) Department of Biology within the College of Arts and Science. Furthermore, he is working with a team of researchers at USask to develop a one-of-a-kind cryobiology research program. This program is specifically aimed at assisting women and girls who have been 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.”
Cryopreservation of ovarian tissue is a comparatively recent medical technique that can give women and particularly young girls with cancer opportunity to have their own children in the future. This procedure entails removing and preserving healthy ovarian tissue prior to its potential harm from cancer therapies like chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
In the future, once cancer is treated, the preserved ovarian tissue can be placed back to enable the birth of a biological child. Benson stated that this method has successfully enabled children, teenagers, and women in their childbearing years to have healthy offspring.
As Benson puts it, the practice of preserving ovarian tissue through freezing has transitioned from being experimental to more commonly used in recent times. While this technique is supported by both clinical and research programs in Europe and the United States, but its availability in Canada is still limited.
“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 at the Division of Oncology at USask’s College of Medicine and also the provincial head of gynecologic oncology, mentioned that such services could give women back a choice taken away from them by cancer. According to Hopkins, the pediatric ovarian tissue is especially susceptible to the damage caused by cancer therapies, and the sole method to preserve functionality for girls below the age of 13 is through the utilization of 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 mentioned that by initiating a cryopreservation program, Saskatchewan could align with the care and fertility preservation standards set forth by the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society. This nonprofit organization is committed to promoting reproductive sciences across Canada.
Benson and Hopkins both hold the view that, given the distinct expertise of the USask faculty and the pre-existing facilities at the university, USask has the potential to lead the way in initiating such programs across Western Canada.
In 2021, Hopkins secured funds to advance pharmaceutical and diagnostic research related to ovarian cancer, alongside the establishment of a tumor bank at USask for the secure storage and analysis of removed cancerous tissue. Moreover, Benson mentioned a robust presence of researchers skilled in cryobiology at USask, with a notable group 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 at Hopkins, showcasing the significance of fertility preservation programs beyond mere hypothetical. Initially, in early 2020, Hawryluk suspected she had endometriosis, but subsequent tests revealed she actually had ovarian cancer. She got her diagnosis in the early days of July, and by the month’s end, underwent surgery to have her ovaries removed.
When she was diagnosed in Saskatchewan, cryopreservation wasn’t presented as an option. At 28, Hawryluk underwent surgery to combat her cancer, which unfortunately left her unable to bear 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 passionately advocated for this service to be accessible in Saskatchewan and across Canada. After discovering from Hopkins that such treatment was unavailable in her own province, Hawryluk admitted it made her angry. This is why she’s so committed to helping Benson and Hopkins turn this program into 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.
Hopkins and Benson believe that, with the collaboration of institutions and healthcare experts, a program can be crafted to deliver unparalleled care for 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.”