Ovaries reveal keys to managing fertility and obesity

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University of Adelaide research into the proper functioning of the ovary is revealing exciting new directions for improved fertility management, focused policymaking in relation to obesity, and even enhanced animal breeding.

The ovaries’ role in women’s health, and indeed in the transmission of life, cannot be overstated. As well as producing essential steroid hormones, they are the creators and distributors of oocytes, the precious “eggs” that form the foundation for every new embryo.

Despite ovaries’ importance, however, surprisingly little has been known about the mechanisms of their proper functioning. But ongoing research at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute is changing that; and in the process identifying new opportunities for improved fertility management, contraception and health policy.

The institute team has been investigating how the ovary generates oocytes and releases them for fertilisation, with particular attention paid to the influence obesity has on this function, and subsequent embryo development. According to lead researcher Associate Professor Rebecca Robker, their work has already delivered critical insights.

“We’ve discovered that obesity in females changes their eggs at the cellular level prior to them being fertilised,” says Associate Professor Robker.

“These changes greatly increase the risk of their children becoming overweight, which clearly indicates the importance of women being a healthy bodyweight before conception.”

In addition to providing policymakers with valuable evidence for the need to place greater emphasis on programs that will prevent and reduce obesity in young people, Associate Professor Robker says her team’s research has other positive implications.

“By learning how the cells of the ovary control the release of the egg, we can potentially develop new ways to approach female infertility disorders, such as anovulation—the inability to release an egg for fertilisation.

“We can also design novel contraception targets to block ovulation, and provide alternatives to the widely used hormonal contraceptives developed decades ago, which can lead to problems with long-term use.”

There are even applications for the discoveries in the area of animal reproduction, she says.

“We’ve identified a cellular stress pathway that contributes to sub-fertility in dairy cows, which arises due to the profound weight loss they experience during lactation, and have found a way to reverse it.”

The institute team is continuing to develop its discoveries for practical clinical use and in agriculture.

Related links: 
Assoc Prof Rebecca Robker
Robinson Research Institute 
Ovarian Cell Biology Research Group
Adelaide Medical School