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Could freezing ovarian tissue delay menopause? New Yale study models how the idea could work

Vials containing ovarian are loaded into programmable freezer.
Dr. Kuluk Oktay
Vials containing ovarian are loaded into programmable freezer. Yale's Dr. Kuluk Oktay has published new research detailing how doctors could freeze ovarian tissue and delay menopause for certain women depending on their age.

What’s one thing that female beluga, narwhals, short-finned pilot whales and orcas have in common with humans? Menopause. Almost no other living being is known to experience it.

And now, Dr. Kuluk Oktay, a clinical scientist and ovarian biologist at Yale, says humans might not have to either.

Oktay has published new research detailing how doctors could freeze ovarian tissue and delay menopause for certain women depending on their age.

“In theory, menopause can even be eliminated,” Oktay, director at the Laboratory of Molecular and Fertility Preservation at Yale, says. “But for most women, we might be looking at a delay in the range of 10 years, 15 years, especially if they're doing this [freezing part of their ovary] well before age 40.”

Freezing ovarian tissue is not a new idea.

The procedure has been used to preserve fertility during cancer treatments. A surgeon removes ovarian tissues and eggs. The material is then frozen and, after treatment is complete, surgically re-implanted in the body.

But Oktay says reinserting that younger ovarian tissue could also serve another purpose – possibly delaying the onset of menopause.

Writing in the “American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology,” he details the number of years women could possibly delay menopause, which typically occurs around age 51 or 52.

Studies show that women who reach menopause later may live longer and have less risk for conditions like dementia, bone loss and cardiovascular disease.

“Women are born with all the eggs they have,” Oktay says. “They're born with about a million eggs. And in the lifetime, there's only 500 eggs that are ovulated and 99.9% are actually not used, they're wasted. So if you tap into this extra reserve early on before they are lost without even being ovulated, then you're creating a possibility of using them late before aging takes place.”

He and his team created a new mathematical model that inputs known biological data – all the counts from human ovaries from various studies at various ages – along with molecular studies that determined how eggs behave in the ovary.

“And then we asked, ‘What if a person comes [to us] at this age? What if they freeze that much of their ovary versus this much of their ovary?” Oktay says.

But the purpose of freezing ovarian tissue is to just delay menopause, not to allow a woman to conceive at unsafe ages, Oktay says. “The purpose of this procedure is potentially [to] maybe delay menopause to about 60, 61, 62.”

But Kate Pascucci, an OB-GYN in West Hartford, says there is a need for caution with the research.

“There would be definite health benefits – later menopause is associated with later age at death, but [it’s] hard to know if it still stands in these circumstances,” she says. “And I imagine it's only for people who can afford it.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.