New method for stimulating ovulation may make IVF safer, study says

British researchers have found a new method of stimulating ovulation that may provide a safer and more effective option for women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers found that the hormone kisspeptin can be used to induce ovulation in IVF treatment, without the side effects of currently used methods.

Typically, doctors use HCG, which is also a naturally occurring hormone, to stimulate ovulation during IVF. However, because the hormone directly targets the ovaries, use of HCG puts women at risk for ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) and potentially life-threatening side effects. OHSS can lead to painful and swollen ovaries and side effects can include vomiting, rapid weight gain and kidney failure.

“One of the biggest problems in IVF is excessive stimulation of ovaries,” study author Waljit Dhillo, a professor in endocrinology and metabolism at Imperial College London, told “Each year, healthy women end up in the hospital and there are a number of deaths each year.”

Researchers at Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London studied a group of 53 women, each of whom underwent a single injection of kisspeptin to induce ovulation. Mature eggs developed in 51 out of 53 participants and 49 women had one or two fertilized embryos transferred to the uterus.

From that group, 12 healthy babies were born, which researchers considered to be a good outcome compared to standard IVF therapy.

Primary infertility— when a couple has been unable to conceive for at least one year— affects about 6.1 million people in the United States. According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, doctors performed over 165,172 IVF procedures in 2012.

Kisspeptin is a hormone normally present in the body and is known to play a critical role in puberty and reproduction. It works to promote reproduction by triggering the release of female sex hormones and stimulating egg development. High levels of kisspeptin are normally present in a healthy pregnancy, so researchers had little concern about the hormone on fetus development, Dhillo said.

Researchers noted that a benefit of using kisspeptin instead of the conventional HCG hormone is that kisspeptin does not directly target the ovaries, while HCG does. Additionally, they did not observe any negative side effects among participants.

“If you give HCG, the hormone goes straight to the ovary and does its job. But there is no regulation,” Dhillo said. “So the same dose can have different effects because some women might be more sensitive to it.”

Dhillo and his team now plan to test the effectiveness of kisspeptin in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a subpopulation especially prone to OHSS.