Northwestern receives $5 million to study polycystic ovary syndrome

November 11, 2002

Northwestern University has been awarded over $5 million by the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health to establish a Specialized Center of Research (SCOR) to study polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a disorder associated with irregular menstrual periods, infertility, excessive body hair and increased risk for diabetes. The SCORs represent an important new NIH initiative in women's health.

Northwestern was one of 11 leading medical institutions selected as SCOR sites on the basis of having at least three highly meritorious research projects that explore an important issue related to sex/gender health differences.

Andrea Dunaif, M.D., Charles F. Kettering Professor and chief of endocrinology and metabolism and professor of medicine at The Feinberg School of Medicine, is the principal investigator on the SCOR, which will focus on the role of genes, androgens [male hormones] and intrauterine environment in PCOS. The goal of the study is to elucidate the pathogenesis of PCOS and provide the potential for molecular diagnosis of the syndrome.

In addition to Dunaif, who also will direct one of the four projects comprising the SCOR, other Northwestern collaborators include Jon Levine, professor of neurobiology and physiology at the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences, who is the SCOR co-director and a principal investigator on another of the projects, as well as Feinberg School researchers Randall Barnes, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology; Boyd Metzger, M.D., professor of medicine; and Margrit Urbanek, assistant professor of medicine.

Institutions also participating in the SCOR are the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, Madison, Wisc.; the California Regional Primate Research Center, University of California, Davis; and The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The Agenda for Research on Women's Health for the 21st Century, written by the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health, identified PCOS as an "endpoint disease state of high priority."

PCOS is one of the most common disorders of premenopausal women, affecting nearly 10 percent of this population. It is associated with elevated levels of androgens, as well as irregular menstrual periods and reproductive problems. Other symptoms of PCOS include obesity, excess hair on the face and body, male-pattern baldness and severe, chronic acne.

Many women with PCOS are insulin-resistant, a condition that raises the level of insulin circulating in the body and is a precursor to type 2 diabetes. In fact, women with PCOS have seven times the risk of other women for developing adult-onset diabetes, which in turn greatly increases their chance of having cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke and kidney problems. Dunaif's research also has shown that PCOS is an important risk factor for the adult form of diabetes in teenaged girls.

There is likely an increased risk for breast cancer -- another condition reported to be associated with insulin resistance -- in women with PCOS, Dunaif said. Similarly, there are limited data to suggest that girls at risk for PCOS have a history of intrauterine growth retardation, another finding associated with insulin resistance, she said.

Dunaif and colleagues have shown that PCOS has a substantial negative impact on quality of life because of the disorder's multisystem conditions. In addition, because obesity and type 2 diabetes have now reached epidemic proportions in the United States, and cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in women, PCOS plays a key role in the foremost causes of death and disability in American women.

Moreover, Dunaif and co-investigators have found that the brothers as well as the sisters of women with PCOS have metabolic and hormonal abnormalities. They have identified a region on chromosome 19 -- near the insulin receptor gene -- that appears to contain a major gene for PCOS.

These gene studies, led by Dunaif, were funded by an earlier, $6 million research grant from National Institutes of Health's National Centers Program for Infertility Research.

Collaborating on the gene studies were Urbanek, Ralph Kazer, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of reproductive endocrinology at the Feinberg School and researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dunaif and Kazer also are co-directors of a PCOS Center that was established at the Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation earlier this year.

Women between 18 and 45 with PCOS or with six or fewer menstrual periods a year may receive information about participating in these research studies by calling 1-800-847-6060 or e-mailing
KEYWORDS: polycystic ovary disease, PCOS, type 2 diabetes, women's health

Northwestern University

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