Morning sickness, a common pregnancy complication marked by nausea and vomiting, has long puzzled doctors and pregnant people alike. This week, researchers revealed a major breakthrough that finally explains what causes debilitating morning sickness and opens the door to potential new treatments.
Fetal Hormone Identified as Key Culprit
A new study published in Nature pinpoints a specific hormone made by the fetus, called GDF15, as the leading cause of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Scientists found that higher levels of GDF15, which helps the placenta grow normally, make the mother’s body overly sensitive to this hormone. This triggers the area of the brain that controls nausea and vomiting.
Lead researcher Prof. Gordon Smith explains:
“It’s long been suspected that GDF15 played a role in morning sickness, but we didn’t know how the hormone caused nausea and vomiting. Now we can see GDF15 directly stimulates the vomiting center in the brainstem. This solves a 70-year mystery around what causes morning sickness.”
Up to 80% of pregnant women experience some degree of morning sickness, which typically starts around 6 weeks of pregnancy, peaks at 8-12 weeks, and subsides by week 16. A minority suffer from an extreme, prolonged form called hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) resulting in malnutrition, dehydration and other health risks. Kate Middleton notably struggled with HG during her pregnancies.
Higher Sensitivity to GDF15 Linked to More Severe Sickness
Analyzing blood samples from over 500 pregnant women, the researchers made another key finding:
Table 1: Correlation Between Blood GDF15 Levels and Morning Sickness Severity
|Blood GDF15 Level
|Average Morning Sickness Severity Score*
***Scored on 10-point nausea/vomiting scale*
Women whose blood contained higher concentrations of GDF15 reported more severe nausea/vomiting. This suggests some women have an outsized biological sensitivity to normal or elevated levels of this fetus-derived hormone.
Importantly, blood GDF15 only modestly increased in women with worse sickness. So it’s not the absolute levels that matter most, but how the mother’s body reacts to the hormone.
As Prof. Smith explains:
“It’s not necessarily the amount of GDF15 itself, but sensitivity to it that causes more severe nausea and vomiting.”
They also found women carrying female fetuses, which produce more GDF15, tended to have worse morning sickness on average.
Discovery Points to Possible Treatments
Now that the root biological pathway behind morning sickness is clearer, the research team is optimistic scientists can develop treatments to block GDF15’s nausea-inducing effects.
Potential therapeutic strategies highlighted by the study authors include:
- A GDF15 neutralizing drug or antibody
- Medications that reduce innate sensitivity to GDF15
- Direct anti-nausea drugs targeting the vomiting center pathway
While no morning sickness treatments directly targeting GDF15 exist yet, Prof. Smith says pharmaceutical companies are interested. He predicts we’ll see drug trials exploring these approaches within the next 5 years.
Any new medication would still need to prove safe and effective for both mother and developing baby through rigorous clinical testing before approval. But just knowing the underlying mechanism provides researchers a precise drug target for the first time.
Seeking the Right Balance Between Fetus & Mother
The discovery of GDF15’s starring role also raises scientific and ethical questions about the inherent tension between the biological interests of the fetus and mother’s health during pregnancy.
GDF15 is essential for normal placental and fetal development, but appears to make some women quite ill at high concentrations. This hints at an evolutionary tug-of-war between the fetus’ drive to extract maximum resources from the mother, and the mother’s capacity to nourish a healthy pregnancy without endangering herself.
Further research will be needed to fully understand this delicate maternal-fetal exchange. But scientifically parsing the tradeoffs between mother and baby could enable safer, healthier pregnancies.
Lingering Impacts on Sufferers
The physical and emotional toll of severe morning sickness still weighs on many who’ve endured hyperemesis gravidarum. Some shared their stories amid the recent breakthrough.
Amy Bellows suffered unrelenting HG vomiting through two pregnancies that left her 25 pounds lighter. Though grateful for her children, the traumatic memories haunt her years later:
“The mental and physical scars that hyperemesis leaves in its wake don’t just disappear once the baby is born.”
For others, the agony ultimately ended pregnancies hoped for but medically unable to continue. Geneticist Diana Gall vividly recalls the friends and doctors who dismissed her constant vomiting as “fake” until she faced emergency surgery to save her own life.
The persistent myths that morning sickness is minor or tied to mothers’ nerves have compounded the isolation for many sufferers. This new research dispels such misconceptions according to Diana:
“The fact it is being taken seriously as a real physical condition is progress.”
While the latest discovery comes too late to aid these women, it offers optimism that the next generation may be spare such devastation.
What Happens Next?
This pioneering research sets the stage for a new wave of scientific investigation and drug development focused squarely on GDF15’s role in triggering morning sickness.
Several areas of inquiry and progress we could see in the coming years:
- Deeper insight into genetic and immunological factors driving maternal sensitivity to GDF15
- Clinical trials testing medications that neutralize GDF15 or block its downstream effects
- Improved diagnosis and risk prediction for potentially severe morning sickness cases
- Enhanced treatment guidelines and options for hyperemesis gravidarum
- Renewed medical and public understanding of morning sickness as a legitimate medical condition with biological causes
While expectant mothers have suffered from severe morning sickness for eons, this breakthrough finally shifts our comprehension from supernatural mystery to scientific basis – and control. Where nauseating pregnancy symptoms were once accepted as inevitable, we now can envision a future where medical science prevents such misery.