December 5, 2007

Helping Cancer Survivors Overcome Infertility

Winston Thompson ’86 heads Cooperative Reproductive Science Research Center at Morehouse School of Medicine

By Barbara Mulligan

Young women who survive cancer with the help of chemotherapy or radiation often experience a bittersweet victory. Many are left infertile by the lifesaving treatment – unable to bring new life into the world.

Winston E. Thompson ’86 is among a group of physicians and researchers working to provide more options to these women, including collecting and storing the follicles that contain eggs before the eggs are fully developed—and before aggressive cancer treatment begins.

An associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga., Thompson heads the school’s Cooperative Reproductive Science Research Center, conducting and overseeing research aimed at understanding the anti-proliferative and tumor-suppressive properties of the gene prohibitin.

“The ovary is a very dynamic organ, and there’s a lot to learn about it. It’s the central area of why we exist. It’s always amazing, exploring the intricacy of how this process works – how cells work together to ensure a fertilizable egg,” Thompson says.

Thompson participates in Northwestern University’s Oncofertility Consortium, which brings together professionals in reproductive medicine, oncology, reproductive health research, biomechanics, materials science, mathematics, social science bioethics, religion, policy research, and educational sciences to explore the reproductive future of patients facing fertility-threatening cancer treatments. The consortium’s primary centers are located at Northwestern; the University of California, San Diego; University of Pennsylvania; Oregon Health & Science University, and University of Missouri.

“We have to deal with a number of questions, including what role health-care practitioners and religious groups will have,” Thompson says.

His own work focuses on finding the best ways to store and preserve premature egg follicles and how to grow them in vitro. Already, he says, “we have demonstrated that we can have live births of mice and some primates after egg follicles have been preserved and thawed.” His prohibitin research also could lead to new strategies for diagnosing or offering prognoses for ovarian cancer and other problems, helping in the “design of a more rational basis for drug development,” he adds.

He remains concerned with ensuring the future of his research: “The challenging part is sustaining funding for my laboratory.”

His collaborators also include researchers at the Mayo Clinic, Columbia University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Missouri, and Ottawa University.

“In this day and age, you have to have collaborators all over,” Thompson says, pointing out that ever-evolving technology keeps researchers in touch nearly instantly and allows them to share their work. He also teaches cellular, molecular, and reproductive biology and embryology.

Thompson, a former Alumni Admissions Representative for Lafayette, enjoys spending time with his family, including two sons and a daughter, and volunteering at his church as a head basketball coach for 11- and 12-year-old boys.

After majoring in biology at Lafayette, Thompson, a native of Jamaica, earned a master’s degree in endocrinology from Rutgers University in 1988 and a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Rutgers in 1993. He completed three years of postdoctoral training in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School and earned a certificate in embryology from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

At Lafayette, Thompson, who’d been planning on a career as a physician, conducted independent research on fiddler crabs with Charles Holliday, professor of biology, and grew to love research.

“The excitement of discovering new things really piqued my interest,” he says. “I found I had more of an interest in science and discovery rather than just treating an illness.”

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