Doctors in Greece may have found a way to make postmenopausal women grow eggs.
As reported in the New Scientist, fertility researchers have been looking into a new way of potential of helping women in menopause continue to produce eggs. As a women ages, the number and quality of her eggs inevitably declines. By the average age of menopause at age 51-52, there are relatively few eggs left in the ovary, and those that do remain, generally are of such poor quality that ovulation just simply ceases. When this happens, fertility disappears, menstrual periods stop and the symptoms of the lack of estrogen such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness get worse. These symptoms of menopause actually start years before the periods stop but the potential for pregnancy, even if it small, remains.
What if there was a way to reverse this? With this in mind, a team in Greece tried using something called platelet-rich plasma to see if it was possible to regenerate eggs. Platelet rich plasma (PRP) has been used with some success to try and regenerate injured bone and muscle. Among other things, it contains a mixture of growth factors, chemicals found throughout the body that are involved in the natural processes of inflammation and tissue repair. The idea was to try to use the PRP to regenerate ovarian tissue and somehow activate the dormant eggs to grow.
Regenerative medicine for reproductive medicine
The researchers did find some success, and a number of these women did begin to ovulate again. In one patient, they were even able to harvest and fertilize some of these eggs through IVF. The embryos were frozen for later use, so it is unknown whether this procedure can actually result in a pregnancy.
There are still lots of unanswered questions before we can consider this an option for infertile couples in menopause, early or otherwise. We know that the eggs are generally of poor quality in women in their late 40's and when there is fertilization that embryos are generally unhealthy. These embryos rarely implant, and when they do the risk of miscarriage and genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome is quite high. It is not uncommon for women in above 45 to produce enough eggs to do IVF, but it is uncommon that any are good enough to result in a healthy pregnancy. Would the eggs from PRP be any different?
While it is possible that the PRP may improve the quality of these eggs to the point where they can result in a healthy baby, it is just as likely (if not more so) that they they will not. We don't know if the center that reported this data will be able continue to get patients to respond as time goes on or if other fertility clinics will be able to replicate these results. We also do not know if the benefits are short acting or long term, and if they are long acting what the implications are for these patients. Does it mean that a 60 year old can now conceive on her own or how will the continuation of menstrual cycles beyond the natural time affect a woman's risk of diseases such cancer or heart issues? The implications, both medical and ethical, could be enormous.
At this point, it is still just an interesting idea. Still, the prospect of being able to restart a menopausal ovary is intriguing to fertility specialists and their patients.