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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Gene check could predict menopause
egg graphic
A woman is born with a fixed number of potential eggs
The age at which a woman will lose the ability to have children is almost entirely predicted by the genes she carries, say doctors.

This could lead to an "early warning" test for women who could be robbed of their fertility by premature menopause.

This is an increasingly serious problem for women in developed countries where the trend is often to delay motherhood beyond the age of 30.

Women who will enter menopause before the age of 50 will already be significantly less fertile than the average woman, even at this age.

It is thought that fertility begins to decrease as much as 20 years before the menopause.

While doctors have long suspected that menopausal age has a strong genetic link, researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands feel they have now confirmed this.

They looked at 243 non-twin sisters, and a smaller number of identical twins.

High accuracy

They found that it was possible to predict the age of menopause of one sister with as much as 87% accuracy simply by looking at the age at which the other ended her fertile life.

It would be an advance if we can, at least, discriminate...those who are really at risk of early reproductive failure

Dr Jan-Peter de Bruin, University of Utrecht
They hope that further research will help identify key genes which govern menopausal age - and perhaps produce a screening test for early menopause.

Dr Jan-Peter de Bruin, who led the research team, said that it was unlikely that gene therapy could ever be used to correct the problem, as it was likely that a large number of genes were involved in the process.

He said: "If we do succeed in isolating the responsible genes it is a distinct possibility that young women in the future will be able to have a DNA test that will predict their age of menopause.

"Women invest a lot of years in education and work to obtain a professional career.

"It would be an advance if we can, at least, discriminate from this group, those who are really at risk of early reproductive failure."

The strong genetic link means that women whose mothers suffered early menopause should consider themselves at greater risk of the same - and perhaps plan to start a family earlier in life, he said.

Egg store

Every woman is born with all the eggs she will ever use in her lifetime already present in an immature form in her ovaries.

Over time, this reserve of eggs is depleted, and once reduced to a certain level, menopause arrives.

Scientists believe that the original number of eggs in the ovaries, as well as their rate of "consumption" could be governed by genetic factors.

The research is published in the journal Human Reproduction.

The BBC's Sangeeta Mhaiskar
"It is largely determined by a woman's genes"
Dr Jan-Peter de Bruin
"A woman's fertility declines in the 20 years before menopause"
See also:

30 Nov 00 | Health
Premature menopause 'gene found'
23 Sep 99 | Medical notes
23 Sep 99 | Medical notes
Ovary grafting
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