- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE (AP) — Bearded women once were considered the stuff of circus sideshows, but Dr. John Marshall says the hormonal disorder that causes the condition occurs in almost 7 percent of women.

“For women that experience minor hair growth, it’s inconvenient, but for others who have the more severe form, it’s debilitating,” said Dr. Marshall, director of the Center for Research and Reproduction at the University of Virginia.

“The effects vary from increased hair growth and irregular periods to infertility, diabetes and uterine cancer,” said Dr. Marshall. He also said 20 percent to 30 percent of women with the disorder have the more severe form.

UVa. researchers will receive a $5.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study what brings on the hormone disorder — polycystic ovarian syndrome.

There are two leading theories on what causes the syndrome: an abnormality in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus tells the ovaries to produce too much testosterone, or a problem with the ovaries that makes them produce too much male hormone.

“There is no doubt the ovaries are abnormal,” Dr. Marshall said. “But is that because there is something wrong with them or are they getting the wrong message?”

Dr. Marshall thinks the cause lies in the brain.

“All of the women with the disorder have too much LH, a hormone from the pituitary gland that signals the ovary to make male hormone,” he said.

Suzanne Moenter, a UVa. associate professor of medicine and cell biology, is studying facets of the hormone disorder in mice. She also thinks the brain abnormality is the culprit.

“Our preliminary results indicate that in the presence of increased testosterone, the brain cells controlling reproduction are more stimulated,” Miss Moenter said.

Women with the syndrome produce about twice the amount of testosterone as other women. Onset tends to occur at puberty. To determine the cause, UVa. researchers are studying adolescent girls with and without the disorder.

“We are comparing signals from the brain and pituitary hormones,” Dr. Marshall said. “If we can identify what the differences are, then we can begin to figure out why it happens and how to change it.”

He also said the disorder can be treated with female hormones and fertility drugs, but early detection is critical.

“The problem is that adolescents who experience increased hair growth and missed periods don’t discuss these issues,” Dr. Marshall said. “Usually by the time I see these women, they are infertile and have heavy hair growth.”

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