Researchers from New Zealand have identified a gene which may be implicated in premature menopause, also known as premature ovarian failure (POF)*, a condition affecting one in a hundred women under the age of 40 and one in a thousand under the age of 30.
Women as young as teenagers can suffer this distressing condition and although some retain a measure of ovarian function and even become pregnant, most suffer premature menopause with loss of fertility and the symptoms and side-effects of low oestrogen levels.
A team from the University of Auckland based at the National Women's Hospital, collected medical histories and analysed DNA from women who had undergone premature menopause. They found that the inhibin alpha gene (one of three inhibin genes) was mutated in three of the 43 women they studied (7%), compared with only one out of 150 (0.7%) in an ethnically matched control group. Their findings are reported today (Thursday 30 November) in Human Reproduction**.
Lead researcher Dr Andrew Shelling, from the National Women's Hospital, said that while the results are preliminary and need substantiating, their findings suggest that inhibin and a pathway of co-operating genes may be at fault in premature menopause.
"We think that mutations in the inhibin alpha gene may be responsible for premature menopause in very young women, but that more subtle changes in gene function could cause premature menopause in the older women," he said.
The identification of the mutant gene highlights the importance of inhibin (a glycoprotein involved in regulating follicle stimulating hormone) in the normal functioning of women's reproductive system. The three women with the mutant gene had relatively severe symptoms of POF with their menstrual periods ceasing at the ages of 16, 20 and 24 respectively.
If these women, who made up 7% of the study group, were an accurate
indication of the number of cases of POF caused by the mutation,
Contact: Margaret Willson
European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology