Stem cell breakthrough offering hope to women with polycystic ovary syndrome

Cells in the body communicate with other cells through EVs (extracellular vesicles), tiny packages of information which they release.

Now new research from Chicago University highlights the ­ability of EVs to help a disorder suffered by millions of women worldwide.

PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome)is a disorder of the endocrine system – a network of glands and organs – that affects hormonal balance, fertility and wellbeing.

Women with PCOS may not ovulate, have small cysts on the ovaries, and missed or irregular periods. It can also cause infertility, excess hair growth, acne and weight gain.

It’s notoriously difficult to treat, because symptoms are complex and mysterious. So the researchers’ new PCOS treatment designed to improve many symptoms is welcome news.

Their recently published results describe a novel therapeutic approach using EVs – also known as exosomes – the tiny, free-floating packages of molecules released by stem cells.

Hang-Soo Park, staff scientist at UChicago Medicine and the study’s first author, says: “Current PCOS ­treatments address the symptoms – and the most common treatments, oral contraceptives, do not address patients’ struggles with infertility.

“Our approach represents a ­paradigm shift from symptom management to treating underlying causes. We hope this will prove more effective long term and allow patients to have children if they wish to do so.”

The researchers found stem cell EVs curbed the activity of genes that promote the overproduction of androgen hormones — a hallmark of PCOS – when EVs were injected into animal models.

They also helped stabilise some abnormalities often found with the condition, such as high glucose levels. Whether EVs were injected into a vein or into the ovaries themselves they still restored normal ovarian function. Park added: “Our study demonstrates the resilience of the ovaries under EV treatment, offering hope for women battling PCOS-related fertility issues.”

EV-based therapy appears to have distinct advantages over conventional treatments. Unlike whole stem cell therapy, EVs are more accessible and easier to use, ideal for widespread use. They also have a better safety profile.

Also, clinical trials using EV therapy for reproductive disorders already have government approval.

Park points out some companies are already commercially manufacturing EVs that have proven safe in clinical trials. As a result, he said generalising a treatment won’t be technically ­difficult once the design is finalised.

Along with principal investigator Ayman Al-Hendy, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at ­UChicago Medicine, and other researchers, Park is now looking to begin human clinical studies.

“The takeaway for PCOS patients is researchers are working hard to ­understand pathways involved,” said Park. “The treatments will become safer and more effective.” Great news.