Researchers in Greece have used a blood treatment to rejuvenate the ovaries of post-menopausal women, enabling them to restart their periods and produce fertile eggs.
The menopause typically occurs in women between 45 and 55 years of age and causes the ovaries to stop releasing eggs on a monthly basis. The new technique could hold promise for older women who wish to have children as well as those who experience premature menopause.
'It offers a window of hope that menopausal women will be able to get pregnant using their own genetic material,' says Dr Konstantinos Sfakianoudis, lead researcher and gynaecologist at the Greek fertility centre Genesis Athens. The preliminary results were presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting earlier this month but have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The team injected the ovaries of about 30 menopausal women with platelet-rich plasma (PRP), made by spinning a sample of their own blood at a high speed to separate out the different components. PRP contains growth factors which are known to trigger the repair of damaged bones and enhance blood vessel formation. It is commonly administered to patients to speed up healing after cosmetic surgery.
The women who received the PRP treatment were all between 46 and 49 years old and had not had periods for several months. One woman in the study was 45 years old and had undergone the menopause five years previously. Six months after the PRP injection she experienced a period.
The researchers say they were able to collect eggs from most of these women, and fertilise them with their partners' sperm. So far they have yet to implant any embryos in post-menopausal women, but hope to do so in the coming months.
It is still unclear how exactly PRP rejuvenates ovaries but the team speculates that the growth factors could be stimulating ovarian stem cells to regenerate tissue and produce new eggs.
'It seems to work in about two-thirds of cases. We see changes in biochemical patterns, a restoration of menses, and egg recruitment and fertilisation,' Dr Sfakianoudis told New Scientist.
However, fertility experts are urging caution. Professor Adam Balen, chair of the British Fertility Society, warned that not enough is known about the techniques used by the Greek team. He advised, 'It is too early to get excited about this particular piece of research and any person seeking fertility treatment should be made aware of the evidence-base behind any treatment being offered.'
Dr Roger Sturmey at Hull York Medical School hailed the technique as 'potentially quite exciting'. However he also raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of the procedure, noting that the experiment would not have been allowed to take place in the UK. The technique also raises significant ethical questions over the upper age limits of pregnancy.
Dr Sfakinoudis noted, 'We need larger studies before we can know for sure how effective the treatment is.'