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A Kiss(peptin) Is Key To Fertility

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

3 September 2008 - University of Otago scientists have shown, for the first time, the crucial ovulation-triggering role of a small protein molecule in the brain - a finding that may hold the key to new therapies for infertility.

In 2003, researchers overseas found that the then recently discovered molecule, dubbed kisspeptin, was a vitally important in kick-starting puberty.

Now, an Otago group led by Professor Allan Herbison of Physiology, in collaboration with Cambridge University researchers, has just published the first evidence that kisspeptin signalling in the brain is also essential for ovulation to occur in adults.

Studying female mice, the researchers found that signalling between kisspeptin and its cell receptor GPR54 was essential to activate gonadotrophin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons, the nerve cells known to initiate ovulation.

The research appears in the latest issue of the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience.

"This is an exciting finding, as people have been trying to find out precisely how the brain controls ovulation for more than 30 years. This work now reveals a crucial link in the brain circuitry responsible," Professor Herbison says.

The study indicates that disorders affecting the signalling between kisspeptin and the GPR54 receptors will result in women being unable to ovulate, he says.

"Targeting drugs to this chemical switch to make it work properly may help some people who are infertile, while finding compounds that can block this switch could lead to new contraceptives," he says.

As an approach to treating infertility in some women, it could allow for ovulation to be induced in a more natural way than current therapies, he says.

"Kisspeptin activity in the brain occurs at the top level of the cascade of neural and hormonal processes that eventually lead to ovaries releasing eggs. By targeting this switch, the subsequent processes could proceed normally, avoiding the need to induce ovulation by injection of large doses of the hormones themselves," he says.

With infertility becoming an increasing problem for couples in western societies, there is a great deal of interest in developing new therapies, he says.

"Our findings show that kisspeptin may be a promising area to focus future research efforts aimed at either enhancing or regulating human fertility."

Oddly enough, the name kisspeptin is completely unrelated to its association with reproduction, he says.

"The researchers who originally discovered the gene that codes for kisspeptin had no idea that it had a role in fertility - it was named in honour of Hershey Kisses, as Hershey was the town in the United States where the scientists were based."

Professor Herbison says his research group is now investigating what role kisspeptin-GPR54 signalling may play in the male reproductive system.

The research was supported by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

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