A new research conducted at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) highlights how a simple lifestyle change can help prevent or alleviate polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a major cause of female fertility problems.

PCOS, which is thought to affect around 22% of pre-menopausal women in Qatar, is a condition that increases levels of the male hormone testosterone in a woman’s body, which interferes with ovulation and can, therefore, prevent a woman from getting pregnant. The condition is also characterised by cysts in the ovaries and increased hair growth, particularly in the areas of the face or chest.

The new research by Dr Stephen Atkin, Professor of Medicine at WCM-Q, found a strong correlation between PCOS and pre-diabetes, which is characterised by raised blood sugar levels and makes the onset of type-2 diabetes likely. This close association strengthens the belief that healthy lifestyle habits such as eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise reduce an individual’s risk of developing PCOS, as such behaviours also minimise the risk of developing pre-diabetes.

To conduct the research, Dr Atkin was given access to Qatar Biobank. He was able to access the biometric data of 750 anonymous Qatari women between the ages of 18 and 40. Based on these, more than 10% of the women had pre-diabetes but 19% of those women with polycystic ovary syndrome had pre-diabetes.

If you have polycystic ovary syndrome, you have more than double the chance of developing pre-diabetes. Polycystic ovary syndrome is also associated with diabetes in pregnancy. In fact, 66% of women with gestational diabetes have polycystic ovary syndrome and this is a problem for both mother and baby.’

Even if women with PCOS don’t develop diabetes, there are concerns that the condition can make sufferers more susceptible to developing heart disease earlier and with more severe consequences. Added to this, PCOS is associated with an increased risk of endometrial cancer.

PCOS is an extremely important condition that can have devastating consequences. It not only makes conception more difficult for couples wanting to start a family, but through its association with diabetes and heart disease, it can also shorten life expectancy. Added to this, PCOS can also severely affect a woman’s self-esteem. The increase in the male hormone testosterone can lead to acne, facial hair and even, in severe cases, balding. This obviously is hugely detrimental to a person’s confidence.’

Although there is no cure for PCOS, the condition and its symptoms can be managed. Dr Atkin runs a clinic at Hamad Medical Corporation specifically for women with PCOS and will shortly open a second one at Sidra Medical and Research Centre. However, prevention is far better than cure and lifestyle factors have a huge impact on PCOS – poor diet, lack of exercise and being overweight make it much more likely that a woman will develop PCOS.

Dr Atkin added that women should be made aware of this problem. They should be told of what can be done in terms of prevention so they don’t develop the complications that occur when they go on to marry or get pregnant.

Lifestyle advice is very important. It’s one thing telling young women to eat sensibly and exercise for cosmetic reasons, but another if you are telling them it could affect their fertility in later life. By educating women about the causes of PCOS and encouraging them to improve their lifestyles, we can have a hugely positive impact on families across Qatar.’

Dr Atkin also said that the research could not have been possible without the collaboration of Qatar Biobank and BMRP1 funding from Qatar Foundation. He said collaborative efforts like this make a real difference to the people of Qatar.

Dr Atkin was recently awarded a grant by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), a member of Qatar Foundation, for a new study to identify the genetic aspects of PCOS in Qatari families that would allow a more focused approach to the diagnosis and treatment of PCOS for Qatari women. He is looking for Qatari women in large families with and without PCOS to take part in the research. The study is supported by the Path towards Personalised Medicine (PPM) programme of QNRF (PPM2-0207-170010 – Identification of genetic variants associated with polycystic ovary syndrome).

Dr Khaled Machaca, Associate Dean for Research at WCM-Q, said they are excited about the collaborative efforts of Dr Atkin with Qatar Biobank.

The involvement of Qatar Biobank, Qatar Genome Project, WCM-Q and the recent funding by QNRF of this research highlights the collaborative national effort underway to address this important clinical problem.’

The study, entitled ‘The prevalence and metabolic characteristics of polycystic ovary syndrome in the Qatari population’ was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE and can be viewed through this link