THE University of Edinburgh has many proud achievements to its name, and its pioneering work in the field of cryopreservation is an inspiring addition to these. This is not abstract science for its own sake but work that promises to have a real effect on human lives, the latest of these being a one-year-old boy with cancer.

As far back as the early 1990s, Edinburgh took the lead in freezing ovarian tissue and became the first centre in the UK approved for cryopreserving both ovary and testis tissue. Last year, a cancer patient from the capital became the first in the UK to give birth following a transplant of her frozen ovary tissue when she was a young girl.

This was genuinely pioneering work, though it is more common nowadays to freeze eggs rather than ovaries. If anything has lagged behind in terms of restoring fertility, it has not been the university but nature, or at least the biology of young males compared to females, since the testicular tissue of prepubescent boys is not at a stage where it can produce sperm. However, the university has been spearheading the practice of freezing testicular tissue from boys up to the age of 14 and has now extended this to a one-year-old, the youngest patient to date.

Cancer in any child is tragic but, as survival rates get better, attention turns to improving subsequent quality of life. Not the least part of this is trying to ensure survivors can have children of their own when they grow up. Though it need not happen in every case, the use of life-saving chemotherapy and radiotherapy can harm the prospects of producing new life in future by reducing the sperm count and, with it, the ability to fertilise eggs.

Under the new technique, to preserve future fertility from the effects of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, testicular tissue is frozen then, when the boy reaches manhood, it is re-implanted, offering hope of fatherhood for such patients. Hope, however woolly a concept it might appear, actually lies at the heart of science. Hope creates science, and science creates hope.

However, while the prognosis for this latest work is optimistic, it is important to remember that, at this stage, it is essentially experimental. It has never happened before (except in mice). That said, there appear to be good scientific grounds for feeling confident future technology will be advanced enough to ensure a successful outcome.

This is incredibly important and humane work. Researchers rightly want these procedures offered to all children undergoing life-altering cancer therapies and for clinicians to become more familiar with them. At policy level, there is a strong case for funding to be put on a firmer footing, so children with cancer get the same chance to preserve their fertility as adults.

Cryopreservation as health treatment may not be familiar idea to many, perhaps beyond science fiction, but awareness of its potential benefits in real life is spreading, and the Edinburgh team is to be congratulated for its pioneering work in this regard.