A major breakthrough has been made in understanding the cause of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, commonly known as morning sickness. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have pinpointed a key hormone produced by the fetus during early pregnancy that triggers the debilitating nausea, vomiting, and exhaustion suffered by up to 80% of expectant mothers.
Fetal Hormone GDF15 Identified As Culprit
The culprit behind morning sickness has been revealed as GDF15 – growth differentiation factor 15 – in a new study published in the journal Nature. GDF15 is secreted by the placenta during the first trimester, circulating at high levels in the mother’s bloodstream.
Researchers found that women who experience hyperemesis gravidarum – an extreme, prolonged version of morning sickness – were exceptionally sensitive to the hormone compared to women with normal or no nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. This sensitivity triggers a cascade of signals to the mother’s brainstem that provokes intense nausea and food aversion.
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“This is the first time that the biological mechanism behind nausea and vomiting during pregnancy has been elucidated. It’s a huge step forwards in understanding what is a poorly understood but very common condition,” said lead researcher Prof Giles Yeo.
The finding now paves the way for developing treatments that could relieve this age-old burden on mothers-to-be. Potential morning sickness remedies range from blocking GDF15 signaling to inhibiting its production.
Morning Sickness Has Debilitating Impact
Up to 80% of pregnant women suffer from nausea or vomiting to some degree, typically starting around 6 weeks gestation and peaking by week 9. Symptoms often continue until 16-20 weeks.
While dubbed ‘morning sickness’, the queasiness can strike any time of day or night. In about 1% of pregnancies, women battle a severe, prolonged version lasting over 20 weeks called hyperemesis gravidarum.
This extreme morning sickness leads to weight loss, dehydration, and hospitalization from complications like kidney and liver problems. It’s known to increase the risk for preterm birth, low birth weight, developmental delays, and depression in the mother.
Morning sickness takes a major toll on quality of life and relationships and poses a tremendous economic impact in healthcare costs and lost productivity. Over $2 billion is spent annually in the U.S. alone on caring for hyperemesis patients.
Better treatment options are sorely lacking, with most pregnant women told to simply rest and sip fluids. Identifying the root biological mechanism now opens opportunities to develop targeted therapies that could curb symptoms.
New Drug Possibilities Excite Sufferers
The latest finding offers new hope to weary expectant mothers battling unrelenting nausea or hooked up to IVs for hydration. “This changes everything,” shares hospitalized hyperemesis patient Claire Saunders. “Finally having an answer after years of ‘it’s just one of those pregnancy things’ feels incredibly validating.”
Within hours of the announcement, morning sickness support groups lit up with excitement and requests to enroll in clinical trials. “I lost my first baby at 10 weeks to hyperemesis complications and have barely kept food down with my current pregnancy,” says Maggie Holt, 32 weeks pregnant. “I would try almost anything if it meant enjoying my pregnancy and bonding with my baby.”
Researchers caution that any treatments would likely take 2-5 years to hit the market. But the discovery accelerates progress toward an approved drug that could quell the ceaseless nausea. That offers light at the end of the tunnel for struggling moms-to-be.
Next Steps: Trials to Test New Medications
Now that the root cause is understood, Professor Yeo plans human trials with GDF15 blocking drugs to evaluate their safety and impact on nausea/vomiting severity. “We’ll start with small trials in extreme cases threatening hospitalization,” Yeo explains. “If those succeed, we would scale up studies for wider testing.”
Several drug companies are also independently screening chemical libraries and designing custom GDF15 inhibitors. The most promising options would then undergo rigorous clinical evaluations enroute to regulatory approval. Morning sickness remedies could potentially release within 5 years.
In the meantime, researchers aim to develop an inexpensive blood test that measures GDF15 sensitivity. That would identity pregnant women most at risk of developing hyperemesis for early intervention and support.
The discovery that fetal GDF15 lies behind morning sickness heralds a new era in preventing and alleviating this age-old pregnancy plague. After decades clouded in mystery, medical science is finally peeking behind the curtain thanks to Cambridge’s clever detectives.
Their breakthrough charts a course toward tailored treatments that could rescue nauseous moms-to-be in the coming years. That offers tremoundous hope for both enduring hyperemesis sufferers and the over 100 million women annually who wrestle with morning sickness. This scientific victory promises a brighter dawn for expectant mothers worldwide.
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