A team of researchers in Melbourne have identified a new breakthrough method of protecting female fertility for women suffering the potential impact of cancer therapy or premature menopause.


The team, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Monash University and Henry’s Institute of Medical Research, made the discovery while investigating how egg cells die.


During the course of the investigation, they found that two specific proteins, called PUMA and NOXA, cause the death of egg cells in the ovaries.


Associate Professor Clare Scott from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said the research shows that when the DNA of egg cells is damaged following exposure to radiation or chemotherapy, PUMA NOXA trigger the death of the damaged cells.


“PUMA and NOXA can trigger cell death, and have been found to be necessary for the death of many different cell types in response to DNA damage,” Associate Professor Scott said.


This removal of damaged cells is a natural process that is essential to maintaining health but, for women undergoing cancer treatment, can be devastating when it leads to infertility.”


The research focused on egg cells called primordial follicle occytes, which provide each woman with their ongoing supply of eggs. The research found that that low numbers of their eggs can also be a cause of early menopause.


Associate Professor Jeff Kerr from Monash University, said that when these egg-producing cells were missing the PUMA protein, they did no die after being exposed to radiation therapy.


“This might ordinarily be cause for concern because you want damaged egg cells to die so as not to produce abnormal offspring,”  Associate Professor Jeff Kerr.


“To our great surprise we found that not only did the cells survive being irradiated, they were able to repair the DNA damage they had sustained and could be ovulated and fertilized, producing healthy offspring. When the cells were also missing the NOXA protein, there was even better protection against radiation.”


A joint leader of the study, Professor Jock Findlay, head of the Female Reproductive Biology Group at Prince Henry's Institute, said the study could also have implications for delaying menopause. “We know that the timing of menopause is influenced by how many egg cells a female has,” he said. “Interventions that slow the loss of egg cells from the ovaries could delay premature menopause. As well as prolonging female fertility, such a treatment could have the potential to reduce menopause-associated health conditions, such as osteoporosis and heart disease.”