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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK
Pill project to delay menopause
Middle-aged couple
Women usually experience menopause between the ages of 45 and 55
Scientists are trying to develop a contraceptive pill which they hope will extend a woman's childbearing potential beyond the normal age of menopause.

The Dutch team, funded by a major pharmaceutical firm, not only hope to prevent pregnancy, but also allow the body to keep the eggs it would lose naturally over the decades.



The whole thing sounds utterly fanciful.

Mr John Studd
Any drug which could delay the menopause, even by a few years, would not only improve the quality of life but also theoretically reduce the future burden of postmenopausal illnesses such as osteoporosis and heart disease.

At birth, an average woman has approximately one million cells in her ovaries that have the potential to mature into eggs.

During her fertile years, she will only ovulate approximately 500 times - the remainder of these "small oocytes" are simply reabsorbed by the body.

As a woman's supply of oocytes diminishes, normally between the ages of 45 and 55, she will begin to experience the symptoms of menopause and eventually lose the ability to have children.

It is this gradual loss that the scientists are hoping to stem.

They are trying to understand the six month process by which the cell in the ovary matures into an egg, with their strategy to stop this happening.

Dr Egbert te Velde, head of reproductive medicine at the University of Utrecht Medical School, said that while theoretically possible, the project was a tough challenge for any scientist.

He said: "If we could have a factor which would preserve oocytes, stopping them from starting to develop, we would have a pool of oocytes for longer."

Sceptical

However, other experts are highly sceptical that such a drug could be developed.

Mr John Studd, a consultant gynaecologist in London said: "The whole thing sounds utterly fanciful.

"I just can't imagine how it would be done. Currently there is simply no information on this process."

It is clear that the drug would have to be radically different in its approach to the hormonal contraceptives currently in use.

Even if the research team is successful in understanding how the eggs are brought to maturity, they still have to find a drug which will inhibit this, and it is very unlikely that it could be commercially available within a decade.

It had been thought that women who had taken the high-dose oestrogens contained in the original first generation pills would have delayed menopauses as a result.

However, more comprehensive research presented at the Human Reproduction and Embryology Conference in Bologna on Wednesday seems to contradict this.

Researchers from University of Utrecht looked at more than 12,000 women, and found that on average, those taking the first generation pill were reaching menopause very slightly earlier.

A spokesman for Organon, the drug company sponsoring the Dutch research, confirmed the project was underway, adding that it was at a "very early stage".

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See also:

29 Mar 00 | Health
Women grow old genetically
23 Sep 99 | Medical notes
Menopause
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