13 new regions of the genome associated with the timing of menopause discovered

An international team of researchers has discovered 13 new regions of the genome associated with the timing of menopause. The implicated genes shed light on the biological pathways involved in reproductive lifespan, and will provide insights into conditions connected to menopause, such as breast cancer and heart disease.

Menopause -- the cessation of reproductive function of the ovaries -- is a major hormonal change that affects most women when they are in their early 50s. The timing of menopause can have a huge impact on fertility, as well as influencing the risk of a range of common diseases such as breast cancer.  It has been known for some time that genetic factors influenced onset of menopause, however until recently very few genes had been identified.

In the new study, published in the journal Nature Genetics on 22nd January 2012, Dr. Anna Murray, based at the Peninsula Medical School in the University of Exeter, and Dr. John Perry at the Peninsula Medical School and WTCHG, University of Oxford, and dozens of international collaborators, examined the genomes of over 50,000 women. They identified 13 novel gene regions associated with menopause onset, and confirmed four previously identified. Most of the 17 regions include genes related to DNA damage/repair or the immune system, whilst others are linked to hormonal regulation.

Perry said the new findings "highlight biological pathways not previously associated with reproductive lifespan, and may provide insights into the other conditions connected with menopause age, such as cardiovascular disease and breast cancer"

Murray added "Menopause is a process most women go through, yet we know very little about what governs the timing of this key event in a woman's life. By finding out which genes control the timing of menopause we hope to be able understand why this happens very early to some women reducing their chances of having children naturally."

The authors said they expected further research will identify additional genes, and also assess the impact of these genetic regions on related reproductive disorders. The research team are currently investigating women who had very early menopause, before 45 years, to determine whether the new menopause genes play a role in this clinically important condition, which affects over 5% of women .

Besides Dr. Murray and Dr. Perry, senior authors on the study include Prof. Kathryn Lunetta and Dr Joanne Murabito at the Boston University schools of Public Health and Medicine, and Jenny A. Visser, a scientist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam (Netherlands).

The full study is available.