Public release date: 24-Oct-2007
“AT THIS point I’ll try anything I can to have a child,” says Emma*, a 38-year-old teacher from London. Emma faces a similar problem to many women: her ovaries produce too few ripe eggs for doctors to extract and use for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). She is also one of a number of women undergoing IVF who is self-medicating with a supplement called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in an attempt to beat the biological clock
Researchers at the Center for Human Reproduction in New York began exploring the effects of DHEA in 2004, when they learned that an older patient of theirs had been taking the drug without telling them. Desperate to conceive a child using her own eggs, the then 42-year-old woman had scoured the scientific literature and found a very small trial suggesting that DHEA could improve ovarian function (Human Reproduction, vol 15, p 2129).
The number of eggs doctors could extract from her jumped from one per cycle of IVF to 19 over the course of seven cycles. “We were kind of stunned,” says Norbert Gleicher, the doctor who treated her. Since then, Gleicher has been advising some of his patients aged 40 and above to take three dose of DHEA every day. Each 25-milligram dose costs under $1.
It is a hormone produced naturally by the body, where it is converted into the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone. Exactly how it influences egg maturation is unclear. According to Barad, it appears to induce a form of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which high levels of the hormone cause a “backlog” of ripening eggs that fail to release naturally. Women taking DHEA as part of IVF treatment avoid the negative symptoms linked to PCOS, such as weight gain, perhaps because doctors harvest the ripe eggs each month, Barad says.