SCIENTISTS have found a way to beat the menopause by waking up dormant follicles, offering new hope to women who run out of eggs early in life.
The experimental technique has been tested on a group of infertile women who reached the menopause at around the age of 30. Of the 13 treated women, one has given birth to a healthy baby boy while another is said to be pregnant.
The "In-Vitro Activation" (IVA) technique involves removing the ovaries, cutting them into small one to two millimetre square cubes, and treating the fragments with special stimulating drugs for two days.
The fragments are then implanted within the fallopian tubes and hormones administered to trigger egg development.
The research builds on work in the laboratory showing that women who suffer premature menopause still retain tiny, dormant, "primordial" follicles.
Arousing these immature follicles can result in women previously thought to have untreatable infertility producing viable eggs. The scientists developed a two-step approach to the problem of waking up the sleeping primordial follicles.
First, the ovaries were removed and broken up – a technique that already forms the basis of some infertility treatments. This is thought to disrupt a biological signalling pathway that normally stops too many follicles maturing at once, thereby conserving a woman's egg supply.
Next, the ovary fragments were exposed to chemicals that stimulate another signalling pathway called Akt. This has been shown to stir dominant follicles into growing and producing mature eggs.
A total of 27 Japanese women with primary ovarian insufficiency took part in the study and had both ovaries removed by keyhole surgery. Of these, 13 were found to have ovaries containing dormant follicles.
Follicle growth was observed in eight cases. Eventually five women developed mature eggs that were collected for in-vitro fertilisation.
Scientists at Stanford University in California, worked with the Japanese team and led the laboratory development of the technique. Dr Valerie Baker, director of the university's Programme for Primary Ovarian Insufficiency, said: "To suddenly learn at a young age that your child-bearing potential is gone is very difficult. This technique could potentially help women who have lost their egg supply for any reason."
Although there is too little data available to guarantee any kind of success rate, the approach does look quite promising for women who have run out of eggs.