A hormone imbalance which appears to cause polycystic ovary syndrome could be reversed using a common IVF drug, according to research.
A new theory about how it develops while women are still in the womb may offer scientists a way to treat the condition, which is thought to affect one in five women.
Researchers at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) say the condition, for which there is currently no cure, could be caused by over-exposure to the anti-Müllerian hormone.
When high levels of the hormone are put into mice their offspring show symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), but in the latest study, scientists were able to reverse the effects using a common IVF drug.
Pregnant women with PCOS have 30 per cent more of the hormone than normal, suggesting the condition could be passed from mother to daughter before birth.
The study has been called ‘radical’ and proposes an ‘attractive strategy’ for boosting fertility in women with the condition, which makes it difficult to get pregnant.
Scientists hope to start trials in women within a year – if successful the breakthrough could be good news for PCOS sufferers wanting to have a baby.
Scientists were able to reverse the effects of polycystic ovary syndrome in mice when they injected them with cetrorelix, a drug used to control women’s hormones during IVF
Three quarters of women with PCOS have difficulty conceiving a child because it can interfere with ovulation, causing irregular or nonexistent periods.
Other possible effects of the condition include high levels of testosterone, excess hair growth, weight gain, and high insulin levels.
However, more than half of women affected have no symptoms.
A ‘radical new way of thinking’
Professor Robert Norman from the University of Adelaide, who was not involved with the study but is an expert on reproduction, has praised the findings.
He told the New Scientist: ‘It’s by far the most common hormonal condition affecting women of reproductive age but it hasn’t received a lot of attention.
‘It’s a radical new way of thinking about polycystic ovary syndrome and opens up a whole range of opportunities for further investigation.
‘It’s something we’ve been stuck on for a long time.’
How the research was carried out
The team at Inserm discovered that pregnant women with PCOS have levels of the anti-Müllerian hormone, so they injected it into mice to observe the effects.
As the mice’s female offspring aged they showed signs of polycystic ovary syndrome, suggesting the hormone could be a cause.
WHAT IS POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition that affects how a woman’s ovaries work.
The three main features of PCOS are:
- Irregular periods – which means the ovaries don’t regularly release eggs (ovulation). This can affect a woman’s ability to get pregnant.
- Excess androgen – high levels of ‘male hormones’ in the body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair.
- Polycystic ovaries – the ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) which surround the eggs (it’s important to note that, despite the name, if you have PCOS you don’t actually have cysts).
Source: NHS Choices
This happens, the researchers found, because the hormone overstimulates the part of the brain causes testosterone levels to rise.
When scientists treat mice with cetrorelix, a drug commonly used to control ovulation during IVF, they stop showing symptoms of PCOS, the study found.
Professor Norman added that the link to the anti-Müllerian hormone could explain why women with PCOS seem to be more likely to get pregnant as they get older.
Levels of the hormone are known to decline as women get older.
No cure for PCOS
There is currently no cure for polycystic ovary syndrome, but fertility treatments such as IVF can help women get pregnant, and the symptoms can be reduced.
Previous research has suggested that a diet with a low glycemic index – the GI diet – could ease symptoms by controlling the amount of insulin produced by the body.
Women with PCOS tend to produce too much insulin, which can cause weight gain or lead to obesity.
Experts say simply having a low GI, healthy diet and drinking alcohol in moderation may be enough to improve people’s symptoms.
PCOS sufferers should have a healthy diet, including at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, lean meat and fish, and dairy products, while avoiding anything too fatty or sugary.