Polycystic ovary syndrome could be treated with a malaria drug

Polycystic ovary syndrome could be treated with a malaria drug

Polycystic ovary syndrome could be treated with a malaria drug

The malaria drug artemisinin is derived from the plant sweet wormwood

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

A medicine already used to treat malaria could also work as a treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

In a small trial of 19 women with PCOS, the widely used drug artemisinin improved the regularity of their menstrual cycles and lowered their testosterone, which is often too high in people with the condition.

While the root cause of PCOS is unclear, it involves imbalances in several hormones, including too much testosterone being made by the ovaries. This can lead to irregular menstrual cycles and infertility, as well as acne and excess body hair, among other symptoms.

Those affected also tend to be less sensitive to the sugar-regulating hormone insulin, which leads to weight gain, worsening the hormone imbalances.

At the moment, people with PCOS have their symptoms treated individually. For instance, they might have laser treatments to remove body hair or take the contraceptive pill to regularise menstruation.

While investigating the effects of different drugs on fat cells in mice, Qi-Qun Tang at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, noticed that artemisinin reduced symptoms in mice with a condition similar to PCOS.

His team later gave artemisinin to 19 women with PCOS for three months. It lowered levels of testosterone in all of them, and most also saw a decrease in another substance called anti-Müllerian hormone, which has been linked to PCOS. For 12 of the participants, the drug also led to regular menstrual cycles.

In other work in mice and in human cells, the team found that artemisinin seems to reduce testosterone production in the ovaries.

Stephen Franks at Imperial College London says artemisinin could act through a different mechanism by improving insulin sensitivity, as losing weight tends to reduce PCOS symptoms, although the 19 women had a healthy body mass index on average. “If the results are as good in a randomised trial as in this preliminary study, it’s exciting,” he says.

Elisabet Stener-Victorin at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, says the fact that artemisinin is already generally safe when used for malaria means it could be quickly turned into a new treatment for PCOS.

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