With hopes of bearing kids later in life, a 9-year-old boy named Nathan Crawford who was diagnosed with brain tumor has emerged as the first in the United Kingdom to have his testicular tissue frozen.

In a breakthrough procedure, John Radcliffe Hospital surgeons at Oxford removed and froze part of Nathan’s testicular tissue to one day re-implant it into the patient. Nathan underwent radiation therapy and chemotherapy to shrink his inoperable tumor – a combination treatment that could lead to infertility.

The young boy is suffering from glioma, which develops from the glial cells supporting the brain’s nerve cells. The tumor is so close to important brain tissue which hinders surgical removal without the threat of serious brain damage.

Nathan’s Journey

But why such forward-looking decision from a 9-year-old boy facing illness?

Nathan’s mother, 31-year-old Donna Hunt, explained Nathan’s sickness to him and how the surgery could secure his testicular tissue for future use.

“Our decision-making process regarding whether Nathan should have chemotherapy was made so much easier thanks to the fact Oxford could offer this storage of Nathan’s cells,” explained the mother in an interview, who shared that Nathan was back in their Cornwall home within 48 hours after surgery, already eating fish and chips with the family.

Nathan’s stepfather, Jonathan Alison, said the boy loves children. “[W]e told him this would increase the chances he can have his own children,” he added.

The hospital offered testicular tissue freezing to the family before Nathan began chemotherapy. The keyhole surgery lasted from 20 to 30 minutes and was executed under general anesthetic, with the sample containing sperm stem cells that will stay viable with slow-freezing technology.

Alison recounted that Nathan’s condition first manifested in late January, when he was having more headaches than usual and had blurry vision. The tumor was diagnosed as grade two, non-cancerous, and potentially growing as the child grows.

Testicular Tissue Freezing

Pediatric oncologist Dr. Sheila Lane, tissue cryopreservation lead at the hospital, said this novel technique worked in animals and is similar to those for ovaries, a method that already allowed live births for women who had undergone the operation.

“What happens when you put this [testicular] tissue back, at a later date, is that it generates its own blood supply and starts producing normal hormones, which restores fertility,” Dr. Lane explained.

Japanese researchers had tried the procedure of growing sperm in the lab from frozen samples to be used for fertilizing eggs. Mice and monkeys given the fertilized eggs successfully produced babies, who in turn were also able to mate and create more children.

There is still something to be proven, however, as the animal tests only froze the tissue for a couple of days before thawing. It remains to be seen if frozen tissue can produce sperm years after its removal and storage.

In 2014, a Belgian woman became the world’s first to give birth to a baby using ovarian tissue also frozen when she was 13 years old, and then transplanted back into the ovaries after more than a decade. She turned pregnant at age 27.

Photo: M&R Glasgow | Flickr

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