12 endocrine news stories that you may have missed in 2016 – Part 3

In the final blog post in our series looking back over the endocrinology news you may have missed in 2016, we explore news on the effects of the contraceptive pill, drug pricing and more.

Find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

September: Contraceptive pill explains falls in ovarian cancer

It’s generally agreed that the pill offers protection against ovarian cancer. In September we got a better idea of just how strong this effect is, as a study published in Annals of Oncology looked back at the potential cases prevented since the pill was introduced in the 1960s. Between 2002 and 2012, the rate of ovarian cancer fell dramatically in the EU, US and Oceania, with deaths falling 10% in 28 EU countries.

The declines were particularly marked in countries such as the UK (22%), Denmark (24%) and the USA (18%), where the pill was more widely used after its introduction in the early 60’s.

“There are noticeable differences between countries such as Britain, Sweden and Denmark, where more women started to take oral contraceptives earlier – from the 1960s onwards – and countries in Eastern Europe, but also in some other Western and Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, where oral contraceptive use started much later and was less widespread,” said lead researcher Professor La Vecchia.

The effects were also more pronounced in younger and middle aged women compared to older women. “This is possibly due to the fact that women who are middle-aged or elderly now were less likely to use oral contraceptives when they were young,” he added.

 Media headlines causing a buzz:

Making babies without eggs may be possible, say scientists (BBC)

Testosterone could treat prostate cancer (The Times)

Common contraceptive hormone could protect women from flu (The Telegraph)

First ‘three person baby’ born using new method (BBC)

 

October: The pill and depression

October was a busy month for reproductive endocrinology. Scientists found evidence that ovaries can grow new eggs and we came a step closer to a male contraceptive injection. However, the story causing the biggest stir was an association between use of hormonal contraceptives and depression. Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the study showed that women who used hormonal contraception were more likely to be prescribed an antidepressant, and to be diagnosed with depression.

pill

In a statement widely covered by the media, Society member Dr Channa Jayasena said: “This study raises important questions about the pill. In over a million Danish women, depression was associated with contraceptive pill use. The study does not prove (and does not claim) that the pill plays any role in the development of depression. However, we know hormones play a hugely important role in regulating human behaviour.”

“Given the enormous size of this study, further work is needed to see if these results can be repeated in other populations, and to determine possible biological mechanisms which might underlie any possible link between the pill and depression. Until then, women should not be deterred from taking the pill,” he added.

 

Media headlines causing a buzz:

Evidence suggests women’s ovaries can grow new eggs (The Guardian)

Male contraceptive jab ‘effective’, but side effects are common (NHS Choices, Bazian)

Zika virus could cause infertility in men, new study suggests (The Telegraph)

Prostate cancer sufferers who have hormone treatment ‘double’ their risk of dementia ( Daily Mirror)

Researchers discover the role of hormone in ‘creating fat’ (NHS Choices)

Boys conceived through IVF technique have lower than average fertility (The Guardian)

 

November: Yoyo dieting might not be your fault

While you were at the Society’s 70th annual conference in Brighton, you may have missed a study in Nature that provides some understanding into why people often regain weight after weight loss, and why yo-yo dieting is so ineffective. It appears that stubborn gut bacteria may retain a “memory” of obesity.

Scientists created a yo-yo dieting mouse model, which was cycled from high fat chow to low fat chow continuously, leading to cycles of weight gain and weight loss in the mice.

“As observed in recurrently dieting humans, a preceding obesity-weight loss cycle rendered mice susceptible to accelerated secondary weight gain, even after fully returning to baseline weight,”

The mice which had been on the “yo-yo” diet gained even more weight than mice which had eaten the high fat food the entire time. When the altered “yo-yo” gut microbiome was transferred into healthy mice on a normal diet the mice showed accelerated weight gain, which suggests the altered gut microbiome is causing the accelerated weight gain. So unfortunately, even if you lose weight, your guy microbiome might make it more difficult to keep the weight off – but it is possible! The researchers said that eventually, the microbiome goes back to normal, but this could take months, even years in humans.

 

Media headlines causing a buzz:

Infections not antibiotics may be tied to childhood obesity (New York Times)

Zika virus — concerns for male fertility (Nature)

Discovery of alcohol-regulating hormone could lead to pill which prevents cravings (The Telegraph)

 

December: Hydrocortisone price hike

This new story really got endocrinologists talking. Actavis, producer of hydrocortisone tablets, has been accused of overcharging the NHS after hiking prices from 70p per pack to £88. The accusation comes one week after Pfizer was given an £84.2m fine for similar price hikes for an epilepsy drug.

In 2008 Actavis gained the right to make generic hydrocortisone tablets which are not subject to price regulation.

“We allege that the company has taken advantage of this situation and the removal of the drug from price regulation, leaving the NHS – and ultimately the taxpayer – footing the bill for the substantial price rises,” said the Competition and Markets Authority senior responsible officer Andrew Groves.

Hydrocortisone is a life-saving drug for patients with Addison’s disease, where the body does not produce enough steroid hormone.

Normally only patent drugs are subject to price regulation. When patents expire, and other companies can create generic versions, the competition between competitors keeps prices low. In this case, lack of competitors meant prices could be elevated.

“This is a lifesaving drug relied on by thousands of patients, which the NHS has no choice but to continue purchasing,” said Andrew Groves.

 

Media headlines causing a buzz:

Pregnancy alters woman’s brain ‘for at least two years’ (BBC)

Some baby teething toys may contain hormone-disrupting chemicals (Washington Post)

Prostate cancer sufferer ‘cured’ by blasting tumours with testosterone (The Independent)

Exercise boosts men’s sperm count (BBC)

Babies made from three people approved in UK (BBC)

Autism linked to vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy, researchers find (The Guardian)

Man, I feel like a woman

The Journal of Molecular Endocrinology is the only Society-owned basic science journal dedicated to looking at hormones at the cellular and molecular level. In a series of blog posts, we look back at some of the most cutting-edge research published by our members in our journals. This first piece was written by Douglas Gibson (@douglasagibson), a postdoctoral research at University of Edinburgh.

Remember that members can now publish in JOE, JME and ERC free of charge!

We often think of hormones as ‘male’ or ‘female’ because of how they shape the features we associate with each sex. So androgens – the ‘male’ hormones – might make you think of ‘manly’ things like body hair, muscles and deep voices, but what if I told you that they play an important role in women becoming pregnant too?

It’s difficult to separate androgens from their macho reputation, particularly when examples of androgen excess in women, such as in athletic doping, also produce masculinizing effects. Despite this, androgens have long been known to be important in controlling many processes in female physiology. Indeed, androgens can be detected at significant concentrations in the blood of women and in some cases may even exceed those of men! However, although androgens are abundant in the blood they are usually only activated in specific tissues when they are needed. In this clever way they don’t have widespread and uncontrolled effects.

One surprising place where androgens were recently found to be activated is inside the womb. Every month, the structure of the womb lining – known as the endometrium – is reorganised to create an environment that can support and sustain pregnancy. However, without the right hormonal signals, the endometrium will not provide the conditions required for a fertilised egg to implant.

Recent studies have found that hormones produced inside the womb play a pivotal role in the early stages of pregnancy. It was previously thought this vital role was carried out solely by hormone signals from the ovary but new research has found that ‘male’ hormones (androgens) help to prepare the womb lining to encourage a successful pregnancy.

In our study, we wanted to understand how the signals inside the womb lining affected the early stages of pregnancy. In fact, we found that androgens can act in two key ways; by acting as a direct signal in the womb but also by being converted into ‘female’ hormones (estrogens) in the early stages of pregnancy. We found that estrogens within the womb signal to cells that control blood vessel development which is essential for promoting exchange of nutrients between mother and baby.

So amazingly, androgens seem to provide a delicate balance to control key changes in the womb in pregnancy. However as fewer of these key hormones are produced as women age, this could partly explain why some older women find it difficult to conceive. Our research is now focussing on how changes in the availability of androgens can affect the way the womb lining prepares for pregnancy. We hope to be able to apply this new understanding to improve fertility treatments which in the future may mean that older women seeking motherhood may have a better chance of successfully conceiving.