A test to predict when a woman will enter the menopause has come nearer the grasp of scientists from the University of Exeter Peninsula Medical School, England, and the Institute of Cancer, also in England, according to an article published in the scientific peer-reviewed journal Human Molecular Genetics. Being able to know when her reproductive years will end would have a huge impact on a woman’s family planning, the researchers say, especially as the current trend is towards having children later on in life.

This research forms part of the Breakthrough Generations Study, a study involving 100,000 UK females aimed at investigating the causes of breast cancer. Over the coming four decades it hopes to determine what genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors influence breast cancer occurrence.

The scientists tested four genes known to be linked to the menopause. 2,000 females from the Breakthrough Generations Study who had entered menopause early were compared to another 2,000 of the same age and ethnicity who had not experienced early menopause (matched group).

The researchers found that the four genes all affected early menopause in their own ways, and much more so when they were all present. They added that their findings help explain why some females go into menopause early.

Women who enter the menopause early have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, infertility and osteoporosis, and a lower risk of getting breast cancer.

Dr Anna Murray, study leader, said:

It is estimated that a woman’s ability to conceive decreases on average ten years before she starts the menopause. Therefore, those who are destined to have an early menopause and delay childbearing until their 30s are more likely to have problems conceiving.

These findings are the first stage in developing an easy and relatively inexpensive genetic test which could help the one in 20 UK women who may be affected by early menopause.

“Breakthrough Generations Study” principal researcher, Prof. Anthony Swerdlow, said:

We have made a valuable step towards helping women across the country identify and predict whether they are at risk of early menopause. This may in turn allow them to make informed decisions about their future fertility.

We could not have made these findings without the 100,000 women who are participating in the Breakthrough Generations Study. We hope that many more medical advances will be made over the next 40 years as a consequence of the study.

The authors concluded:

Four common genetic variants identified by genome-wide association studies, had a significant impact on the odds of having EM (early menopause) in an independent cohort from the BGS (Breakthrough Generations Study). The discriminative power is still limited, but as more variants are discovered they may be useful for predicting reproductive lifespan.

“Breakthrough Generations Study”

“Common genetic variants are significant risk factors for early menopause: results from the Breakthrough Generations Study”
Anna Murray, Claire E. Bennett, John R.B. Perry, Michael N. Weedon, Patricia A. Jacobs, Danielle H. Morris, Nicholas Orr, Minouk J. Schoemaker, Michael Jones, Alan Ashworth4 and Anthony J. Swerdlow
Hum. Mol. Genet. (2010) doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddq417 First published online: October 17, 2010

Sources: Institute of Cancer Research, University of Exeter

Written by Christian Nordqvist