Scientists have uncovered a possible cause for heavy periods, saying it could pave the way for new treatment to ease excessive menstrual bleeding.
The researchers, from the University of Edinburgh, identified a key protein that could explain why some women experience heavy bleeding every month, while others do not.
They said the discovery could lead to new treatments that avoid the need to take hormones, such as the contraception pill, which is currently prescribed to women to help them manage symptoms.
A new treatment would provide a much-needed alternative for women who do not want to prevent pregnancy, but suffer from heavy periods and associated pain.
According to the researchers, heavy bleeding affects one in three women and can lead to severe anaemia, where there are not enough red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body.
Researchers studied the womb lining, known as the endometrium, which is shed during menstruation. This leaves behind a wound-like surface that must heal to limit blood loss.
They discovered that lowered levels of oxygen – known as hypoxia – stimulates production of a protein called HIF-1, which drives repair of the womb lining.
Women with heavy periods had reduced levels of HIF-1 compared with women with normal blood loss, the findings showed.
Tests on mice using a drug to boost levels of HIF-1 by manipulating oxygen levels led to improved tissue repair and reduced blood loss.
The scientists said the results offer hope for therapies in the future to treat heavy periods.
The study, published in Nature Communications, was primarily funded by Wellcome with support from the Medical Research Council, the Academy of Medical Sciences and Wellbeing of Women.
Dr Jackie Maybin, clinical lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical Research Council Centre for Reproductive Health, who led the study, said: “Our findings reveal for the first time that HIF-1 and reduced levels of oxygen in the womb are required during a period to optimise repair of the womb lining.
“Excitingly, increasing levels of the HIF-1 protein in mice shows real promise as a novel, non-hormonal medical treatment.”
A spokesperson for Wellbeing of Women, a charity dedicated to improving the health of women by funding medical research, said: “Heavy bleeding is a debilitating and common condition that affects thousands of women and girls but too often gets dismissed.
“Wellbeing of Women is delighted to have supported this work, which has led to the breakthrough discovery of causes of the condition so treatments might now be developed. These findings give hope to women who have suffered in silence with the condition for too long.”