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The Origin of PCOS

Amit Shah, Anil Gudi and Prof Homburg

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), is a very common syndrome among women of fertile age. It can cause any combination of a number of symptoms which include irregular or absent menstruation, infertility, excess body and facial hair and acne and is often accompanied by obesity. The diagnosis is not difficult to make but finding the cause of the syndrome has proved elusive despite intensive investigation. We do know, however, that PCOS very often runs in families and this suggests that some abnormality in a particular gene or group of genes is causing these problems. We have been looking for the offending genes for many years but, so far, have failed to come up with anything concrete so we decided to take on a different approach. The Barker Hypothesis, named by Prof. David Barker from Southampton, tells us that the environment around the foetus during pregnancy can greatly influence what happens in adult life. In fact, the hypothesis says, genes are programmed for specific tasks after birth during intrauterine life and this programming may be influenced by what surrounds the foetus. For example, it has been demonstrated that female babies that have been exposed to high levels of testosterone (the male hormone) during pregnancy will behave much more like boys in their school years. Experiments with pregnant monkeys have also suggested that such exposure to high levels of testosterone during pregnancy will result in the development of PCOS in adolescence by re-programming the gene functions. We are now concentrating our attention on proving this hypothesis. If found to be true, it could open the door to ways of preventing a syndrome which troubles almost 10% of the female population in the fertile age group.

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