The University of QueenslandEnding endometriosis

Ending endometriosis

university-queensland-endometriosis

The University of Queensland’s experts lead the way in research tackling the women’s reproductive disease

Endometriosis is a serious and painful reproductive disease affecting as many as one in 10 women. Its symptoms can be debilitating and their treatment costs the Australian economy an estimated A$6 billion (£3.12 billion) each year. Yet despite its prevalence, endometriosis has only recently begun to capture the attention of the mainstream media.

Grant Montgomery, a professorial research fellow at The University of Queensland (UQ), believes that a historic lack of understanding about reproductive diseases such as endometriosis is partly to blame for this neglect. But research by his team at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience appears set to change things for the better.

Crucially, the team has the support of the Australian government. In 2017, Australia became the first country to announce a national action plan for endometriosis – and with it a boost to research funding – making this an especially exciting time for researchers in the field.

Recognising the seriousness of the disease in this way was “a huge step”, says Professor Montgomery, and one that Australian researchers hope will “go on to support progress in the rest of the world, too”.

It is owing to genomic research – the measurement of genetic patterns across the human genome to determine links associated with risk of disease – that progress has come on in leaps and bounds within the past decade. “Endometriosis is difficult to diagnose; it has a variable presentation so, until relatively recently, the only way to provide a formal diagnosis was surgery,” he explains. But now, “things are really moving”.

The studies currently underway first took root at UQ 25 years ago, when researchers began a project that found that genetic risk factors for endometriosis contribute about half of the likelihood of women developing it.

Taking insight from studies of genetic patterns in twins, researchers found endometriosis to be “in line with many of the other kind of reproductive traits and disorders – uterine fibroids, age at puberty, age at menopause – which all have a strong component of genetic risk,” he explains.

Professor Montgomery began collaborating with the University of Oxford, and this has now expanded to a global collaboration known as the International Endometriosis Genetics Consortium (IEGC). One recent study with the IEGC led by Professor Montgomery and his team was the largest ever completed – with 20,000 cases worldwide – and enabled researchers to confirm earlier mapping studies as well as uncover new regions for exploration.

Through such findings, the team hopes to determine the possible environmental factors it believes contribute to the disease by impacting DNA. “One of the important questions, I think, is whether the disease is one disease or whether, like some cancers, for example, there are multiple subtypes of disease,” says Professor Montgomery.

In 2018, he received a National Health and Medical Research Council project grant to address the issue.

Cracking this conundrum could one day lead to less invasive treatment procedures and personalised treatment plans for individual sufferers. “We may be far from a cure as yet, but some of these answers are now within reach,” Professor Montgomery concludes.

“Ultimately that gives us and the patients a powerful sense of positivity and hope.”

uq.edu.au/research

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