New research offers hope to women with POI

Published 5:01 pm Thursday, April 1, 2021

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Dr. Ilana Chefetz, head of the Cancer Stem Cells & Necroptosis lab at The Hormel Institute, has recently published two scientific papers on possible new treatments for primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) – a condition affecting some women who undergo chemotherapy treatment. 

POI is defined as a reduction in ovarian function before the expected age of menopause in younger women. Reduction in ovarian function is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disorders, osteoporosis, cognitive decline, and mood disorders, resulting in a reduced quality of life. The potential causes of POI include chromosomal abnormalities and genetic mutations, autoimmune factors, and some medical treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Younger women who undergo chemotherapy often lose ovarian function due to its damaging effects on the ovary and subsequently undergo systemic aging. 

“Some cancer treatments can affect the way the ovaries work,” Chefetz said. “This can cause an early menopause for some women. Certain types of chemotherapy can lead to diminished ovarian function many years after treatment, even in patients who had cancer during their childhood, so it is important to study how chemotherapy affects ovarian function so we can diminish its harmful effects. Our goal is to restore ovarian function and improve quality of life in young cancer survivors.”

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In Chefetz’s paper, “Premature ovarian insufficiency: pathogenesis and therapeutic potential of mesenchymal stem cell,” treatment of POI through stem cell transplant is discussed. Stem cell transplantation, taking healthy cells and injecting them into the patient, has been shown to functionally restore an ovary’s ability to produce fertile eggs in in vivo models. Recent advances in stem cell therapy are likely to be translated to new therapeutic options bringing new hope to patients with POI. 

Chefetz’s other recent paper, “AMPKα-like proteins as LKB1 downstream targets in cell physiology and cancer,” looks at another possible POI treatment. Proteins that play a role in metabolism, the chemical process that turns food into energy, have been shown to be expressed in reproductive organs including the ovary, suggesting their role in ovarian function.

In future research, Chefetz will study the role of the necroptotic cell death pathway in chemotherapy-triggered ovarian failure and will use engineered stem cells to restore ovarian function.