Researchers have successfully used a new and potentially safer method to stimulate ovulation in women undergoing IVF treatment.
Twelve babies have been born after their mothers were given an injection of the natural hormone kisspeptin to make their eggs mature.
Doctors normally administer another hormone, hCG, for this purpose, but in some women, there is a risk that this can overstimulate the ovaries, with potentially life-threatening consequences.
Scientists at Imperial College London and clinicians at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust tested the new method in 53 healthy volunteers at Hammersmith Hospital in London. The study, funded by the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health Research and the Wellcome Trust, is published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
One in six couples in the UK experiences infertility, and 48,147 women underwent IVF treatment in 2011.
Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) affects around a third of IVF patients in a mild form, causing symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. Less than 10 per cent of patients experience moderate or severe OHSS, which can cause kidney failure.
Professor Waljit Dhillo, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the study, said: "OHSS is a major medical problem. It can be fatal in severe cases and it occurs in women undergoing IVF treatment who are otherwise very healthy. We really need more effective natural triggers for egg maturation during IVF treatment, and the results of this trial are very promising."
Kisspeptin is a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the release of other reproductive hormones inside the body. Unlike hCG, which remains in the blood for a long time after an injection, kisspeptin is broken down more quickly, meaning the risk of overstimulation is lower.
The women in the study had a single injection of kisspeptin to induce ovulation. Mature eggs developed in 51 out of 53 participants. Forty-nine women had one or two fertilised embryos transferred to the uterus, and 12 became pregnant, which is a good outcome compared to standard conventional IVF therapy.
The researchers will now carry out a second study in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, who have the highest risk of OHSS.
"Our study has shown that kisspeptin can be used as a physiological trigger for egg maturation in IVF therapy," said Professor Dhillo. "It's been a joy to see 12 healthy babies born using this approach. We will now be doing more studies to test whether kisspeptin reduces the risk of OHSS in women who are most prone to developing it, with a view to improving the safety of IVF therapy."
Alison and Richard Harper had a baby boy, Owen, in October 2013 after taking part in the trial in January.
"We took part because we wanted to pay it forward in return for the people who made it possible for us to have a child through IVF," Alison said.
"I went through several cycles of IVF previously but the one in the trial was the least uncomfortable – it was less painful and I felt less swollen. The staff we dealt with were incredible."
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Notes to editors:
1. C.N. Jayasena et al. 'Kisspeptin-54 triggers egg maturation n women undergoing in vitro fertilisation.' Journal of Clinical Investigation, 18 July 2014.
2. About Imperial College London
Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.
Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.
In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.
3. About the Medical Research Council
The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. http://www.mrc.ac.uk
4. About the Wellcome Trust
The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. http://www.wellcome.ac.uk
5. About the National Institute for Health Research
The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is funded by the Department of Health to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. Since its establishment in April 2006, the NIHR has transformed research in the NHS. It has increased the volume of applied health research for the benefit of patients and the public, driven faster translation of basic science discoveries into tangible benefits for patients and the economy, and developed and supported the people who conduct and contribute to applied health research. The NIHR plays a key role in the Government's strategy for economic growth, attracting investment by the life-sciences industries through its world-class infrastructure for health research. Together, the NIHR people, programmes, centres of excellence and systems represent the most integrated health research system in the world. For further information, visit the NIHR website (http://www.nihr.ac.uk).
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