Currently, women are given an injection of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) to stimulate egg production before IVF. The method tested in this study uses a naturally occurring hormone called kisspeptin-54 that stimulates the release of other reproductive hormones, triggering egg production in a 'gentler' way.
Researchers hope that kisspeptin-54 can offer safer IVF treatment by reducing the need for hCG, which carries the risk of causing ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). OHSS is where the ovaries produce too many eggs, which happens in around ten percent of women and can lead to ovarian pain, nausea, and in severe cases, death. Unlike hCG, which remains in the blood for a long time after an injection, kisspeptin is broken down more quickly, in turn lowering the risk of overstimulation and OHSS.
'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', said Professor Waljit Dhillo from Imperial College London, who led the study.
In this small-scale study, 53 women were given a single injection of kisspeptin-54 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.
Scientists at Imperial College London will now carry out a second study in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, who have the highest risk of OHSS. Further studies will be required to investigate the full risk and safety of this treatment but also whether it leads to similar success rates in terms of fertilisation and healthy births as the current technique.
Mr Yacoub Khalaf, director of the assisted conception unit at Guy's Hospital, told the BBC: 'Whilst it is plausible that the risk of hyperstimulation syndrome could be reduced following use of kisspeptin, the number of patients studied is too small to demonstrate reduction in the incidence'. He added that 'more clinical data is needed to demonstrate that kisspeptin is not just safe but also does not reduce the chance of a pregnancy'.