Rewinding the Menopause

BBC Radio 4

Dr Aarathi Prasad looks at how new research into women’s fertility may help stave off the menopause, improving health and quality of life.

The conventional wisdom is that a woman has a finite number of eggs which begin dying off before she is even born. Researchers in the 1950s counted the number of healthy eggs in human ovaries over the course of a life time. After the menopause none remain.

In 2004, Dr Jonathan Tilly’s lab at the Massachusetts General Hospital challenged this assumption when they identified cells they believed could replenish a woman’s bank of eggs. The research is controversial as it has yet to be convincingly replicated, although scientists like Dr Evelyn Telfer – once sceptical of Dr Tilly’s claims – have isolated the cells and already produced some promising results.

Meanwhile, medical colleagues in Edinburgh have been freezing ovarian tissue, harvested from patients who – either through illness or medical treatment such as chemotherapy – face an early menopause. The aim is to use the patient’s ovarian tissue at a later date to reverse the menopause and restore their fertility.

In the long-term, such research could have implications for all menopausal women. However, obstetrician Dr Susan Bewley warns that benefits could come at a cost. She believes the menopause is a natural part of aging and there are risks in trying to reverse it.

So what might the future hold for the application of this new research?

Producer: Sara Parker
A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.