A medical team in Greece claims to have found a way to reverse menopause, by “rejuvenating” the ovaries, thereby extending the window in which a woman can have kids.
The reproductive period normally ends at menopause, which in Canada hits on average at age 51. This is the time when a woman stops menstruating (i.e. releasing an egg every month).
But for some women, the biological clock is being turned back.
“Lots of women focus on their jobs, careers… [until] they’re past the age of 40, [and then say], ‘Now let’s go have a child,’” said fertility doctor Konstantinos Pantos of the Genesis Athens Clinic.
“In the meantime…menopause has arrived and they can’t have children.”
Pantos has helped find a way to potentially change that, using a blood treatment normally reserved to help wounds heal faster. The technique is called platelet-rich-plasma, or PRP, and it triggers growth of tissue and blood vessels.
His Greek fertility clinic injected PRP into the ovaries of about 30 women between the ages of 46 and 49, all of whom had already reached menopause.
The treatment has apparently been successful in restoring the periods of nearly 70 per cent of the women, including one who hadn’t menstruated in five years.
The team has been able to collect three eggs from this woman, according to the New Scientist. Two of the eggs have already been successfully fertilized with her husband’s sperm. The embryos are now on ice, waiting to be implanted into her uterus using in-vitro fertilization (IVF) within the next few months.
The science is controversial. Some medical experts have criticized the clinic for not following proper protocol, which is to first test extensively on animals before trying a procedure on humans.
Pantos admits more research is needed but insists the technique has been tried on mice eggs.
The other point of contention is the ethics of extending the natural window of childbirth.
“There are things that happen physiologically to us as we age that make it perhaps not advisable for us to be pregnant,” she explained.
As we get older, our organs don’t all function as well as they used to. And pregnancy can take its toll on a person’s body.
Critics argue that pregnancies in older women can cause “complications that can burden the system.”
Most pregnancies that you hear about in older women happen via donor eggs. Pantos says “quite a few women” from Canada come to Greece to be artificially inseminated.
The oldest women Pantos has helped impregnate were two 59-year-olds (That was before Greek law made age 50 the cut-off for IVF. A group is currently looking at coming up with an IVF age limit in Canada).
The women will be in their 70s by the time their children hit puberty.
Pantos agrees there should be a future age limit on who can undergo the PRP menopause reversal for fertility reasons. He thinks that should be up to government to decide, though.
“My job as a doctor is to help couples and women achieve pregnancy,” he said. And if the women are healthy, then “why not?”
‘The future is bright’
Heather Shapiro, president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, believes the group that may eventually benefit most from this discovery is those who’ve had their child-bearing ages cut short by early menopause
She says one per cent of women go through it before the age of 40.
“Obviously it’s a very interesting topic [that] could be beneficial to a lot of people,” she said, adding that ovaries have many other functions beyond eggs.
“The big one is making estrogen,” which may help ward off conditions such as heart disease. A decline in estrogen has been linked to an increase in heart disease in post-menopausal women.
She cautions against getting too excited about these findings because much more research is still needed. She thinks we’re still years away from being able to safely use this kind of procedure on people.
Dixon may even be closer than the Greek team to finding a way that helps more women get pregnant. She’s working with a group of scientists at reversing egg aging to improve egg health.
“I’m excited for what the future holds for my generation,” Dixon said. “We know the future is bright.”
The Greek researchers are also testing the PRP technique on women’s uterine lining, as well as on men’s testes to help counteract male-factor infertility.
“They have a right to have a child,” Pantos said, “and we have to help them.”