COGI 2018: 5 key messages

COGI is over for another year. Now we can take time to digest the information from the inspiring and thought-provoking sessions and ask ourselves: ‘what have we learnt?’

In this special edition blog we look back at five key messages and highlights from the three days.

 

1.       Time to consider HRT for primary CHD?

Research suggests that estrogen has a clear biological effect on the cardiovascular system, demonstrating beneficial effects on some of the key risk factors of Cardiovascular Heart Disease (CHD). While there is a lack of definitive evidence supporting HRT as a prevention for postmenopausal CHD, there are a growing number of epidemiological and observational studies supporting its use. In these studies, timing was shown to be a key factor with HRT demonstrating no benefit in older women. However, although there was no benefit there was also no evidence of harm.

 

2.       The role of epigenetics in long term health

Specific epigenetic input during development can produce a lasting difference in phenotype, meaning fetal programming, metabolic endocrine disruption and structural change in organs can all significantly affect the birth of a child.

For example, Caesarean Sections are linked to increases in neonatal morbidity, auto-immune diseases and metabolic disease in the offspring. Maternal obesity and smoking are also shown to be associated with long term negative outcomes for the child. In fact, research suggests that these negative effects may even cross generations.

 

3.       Fertility may be able to be preserved in women with POI

Primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) affects 1 in 100 women at the age of 40. In order to plan the most effective fertility preservation treatment, it is crucial to predict as much as possible whether POI may be imminent. While this is not simple, the condition is hereditary therefore assessing family history may help to provide important insight. Additionally, more research is taking place into the genetic basis of POI, with some evidence suggesting that reproductive health and success may be a marker for identifying POI and health outcomes later in life.  

There are many more options available for treating imminent POI than confirmed POI, including vitrification of oocytes or embryos following ovarian stimulation, freezing of ovarian tissue or a combination of the two. When treating confirmed POI, the options are more complex. While a small number of sufferers may go on to experience a spontaneous pregnancy, researchers are now considering a new technique: in vitro follicle activation (IVA). However, refinement and improvement of the technique is needed for it to lead to an effective strategy for these patients.

  

4.       The freezing debate is definitely not over!

The debate on whether freezing oocytes for non-medicinal reasons is truly beneficial contined at COGI. Speakers argued that social freezing could be seen as a purely commercial enterprise with advertising often aggressive and marred with misinformation. In fact, only 12% women actually return to the clinic and there is a far from certain chance of success.

However, freezing was shown to provide effective results in younger women seeing fertility preservation. In addition, some studies have demonstrated that freezing may be able to reduce risk of OHSS and be beneficial for groups of high responders.

 

5.       ART may be driving rates of pre-term birth

ART is associated with increased incidence of multiple pregnancy. Multiple pregnancy in turn is related with higher risk of pre-term birth and Cerebral Palsy. Using real world data we were shown that incidence of twins born at <32 weeks increased 27-fold from 1987 to 2010, with ART suggested as a main driver.

The genetics of menopause

While the median age of menopause is 51 years, primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) premature menopause can occur at 40 years or younger and late menopause can occur as late as 62 years. We know that POI is related to adverse health conditions including increased risk of CHD, osteoporosis, cognitive decline and mortality.[1] But why does premature menopause occur? Nutritional status is not considered to affect age of menopause. Similarly, menopause shows no decennial or centennial trends. So, what is causing this variation?

 

The genetic impact

Presenting at COGI 2018, Prof. Joop Laven explained that over 50% of the variation in age of menopause is caused by genetic variance.

However, pinpointing the specific genetic variants associated with menopause is complex. Results from genetic studies are often underpowered with inconsistent results. One genome-wide linkage study identified only one variant approaching genome-wide significance (rs6543833)[2], while another study concluded that the genetic architecture related to age of menopause involves a large number of rare, low frequency and common variants.[3]

However, with the advances in next generation sequencing (NGS) there is hope. Prof. Laven shared data from two recent genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which suggest that genes affecting ovarian function seem to play a role in DNA maintenance and DNA repair, particularly in repairing double strand breaks (DSB).[4],[5] Somatic cell ageing is associated with decreased effectiveness of DNA repair and Prof. Laven explained that it is key to understand that these genes therefore affect both somatic cell ageing and germ line ageing.

He suggested the following paradigm: The ageing of the soma as a result of inefficient DNA repair may be responsible for loss of ovarian function. This means that somatic ageing could be seen as a primary driver of POI.

 

Reproductive success, menopause and longevity

Interestingly, Prof. Laven also explained that genetic factors involved in DNA repair and maintenance are also common between reproductive performance, age of menopause as well as longevity.[5] He discussed that good reproductive health seems to be linked to good physical condition of the soma. As such, decreased fertility appears to be strongly associated with reduced health status.

So, what does this mean? Well, perhaps decreased fertility may be able to be used as a predictor of general health in later life to further support the future of individualised, precision medicine.  


Sources:

[1] The timing of the age at which natural menopause occurs. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am. 2011;38(3):425-40.

[2] Sonya M. Schuh-Huerta, Nicholas A. Johnson, Mitchell P. Rosen, et al; Genetic variants and environmental factors associated with hormonal markers of ovarian reserve in Caucasian and African American women, Human Reproduction, Volume 27, Issue 2, 1 February 2012, Pages 594–608, https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/der391

[3] Perry JRB, Murray A, Day FR, Ong KK. Molecular insights into the aetiology of female reproductive ageing. Nat. Rev. Endocrinol. 2015;11:725–734. doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2015.167.

[4] Jiao, X., et al. (2018). "Molecular Genetics of Premature Ovarian Insufficiency." Trends Endocrinol Metab 29(11): 795-807.

[5] Laven, J. S. E., et al. (2016). "Menopause: Genome stability as new paradigm." Maturitas 92: 15-23.

 

Barriers to the HPV vaccine

In an inspiring session at COGI 2018, four experts discussed the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine; its safety, efficacy and some of the key barriers to a successful vaccination programme.

Since the introduction of the HPV vaccine around 10 years ago, the UK has developed a largely successful vaccination programme. Dr. Elmar Joura shared data demonstrating that coverage rates are almost 90% and prevalence of HPV16 and HPV18 have in turn reduced by 75% and 86% respectively. However, in other countries coverage rates are much lower. Dr. Joura explained that Japan has a rate of just 0.6%. A 2016 study showed Italy, Netherlands, Norway and Spain also have coverage rates under 60% while France has a rate of just 20%.[1]

The efficacy of the vaccine has been established, Prof. Jorma Paavonen explained, with Phase III trials demonstrating protection against persistent HPV infections, a range of precancers and genital warts (HPV6/11). Safety of the vaccine has also been carefully studied.  Research indicates that the HPV vaccine does not have adverse effects on pregnancy outcomes or cause the onset of autoimmune diseases.[2],[3] In addition the World Health Organisation (WHO) have investigated a number of rare conditions that have speculatively been associated with the vaccine. It concluded that there was no increased risk in outcomes after vaccination.

So, with the efficacy and safety of the vaccine supported by extensive research, why are attendance rates so variable?

 

The path to vaccine hesitation

Dr. Pauline Paterson explained that vaccine hesitancy should be considered as a continuum. While there are individuals that refuse all vaccines, some only delay vaccination and others comply but with hesitation or caution.

There are three main drivers of hesitancy, explained Dr. Paterson.

-          Complacency – This can lead people to perceive a lack of value or need for the vaccine. No visibility of disease threat or misinformation over the seriousness of a disease can all contribute.

-          Convenience – Poor access to the vaccine can prevent people from attending vaccinations

-          Confidence – People may lack trust in vaccines, healthcare providers or scientific truths.  

It is these hesitant groups that can more easily be affected by rumours, stories and case histories that may be expressed in the media. In today’s digital world, the internet allows for rapid global spread of misinformation that exacerbates mistrust and hesitancy over vaccination programmes.

A clear example of this is in Japan. Following several years of a successful HPV vaccination programme with attendance rates of around 70%, a Japanese social media scare caused widespread national public concern over the safety of the vaccine. As a result the Japanese government stopped proactively recommending the vaccination and even provided compensation to one individual leading to mass one sided media coverage. Dr. Paterson explained how the internet allowed fears raised in Japan to spread globally, as far as Kenya, Colombia and the UK.  

 

How can we combat vaccine hesitation?

Combating vaccine hesitation is essential for maintaining good public health. When addressing the issue it is important to remember that while healthcare providers remain the most trusted influencer of vaccination decisions, they need more support to address public questioning over vaccines.

Dr. Paterson suggested that strategies addressing hesitancy should be multi-factorial, combining mass media, social mobilization and communication training for healthcare professionals. When considering how to improve HPV vaccination attendance, she indicated four key steps to consider:

-          Ensure the programme is gender neutral

-          Provide a school-based programme

-          Ensure gynecologists keep patients informed, and HCPs keep healthcare professionals continue sharing key factual information

-          Implement organised HPV screening

 

There are many challenges to overcome in addressing vaccine hesitation and the barriers to attendance. However, evidence demonstrates that the HPV vaccine is both safe and effective. We hope that in the future we can combat these barriers to vaccination and work towards effective eradication of HPV.


Sources:

[1] Uhart M, Adam M, Dahlab A, Bresse X. Loss of chance associated with sub-optimal HPV vaccination coverage rate in France. Papillomavirus Res. 2017;3:73-79.

[2] Scheller NM, Pasternak B, Mølgaard-Nielsen D, Svanström H, Hviid A. Quadrivalent HPV vaccination and the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes. N Engl J Med. 2017;376(13):1223–33.

[3] Lehtinen M, Eriksson T, Apter D, et al. Safety of the human papillomavirus (HPV)-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine in adolescents aged 12-15 years: Interim analysis of a large community-randomized controlled trial. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2016;12(12):3177-3185.

Fertility preservation in women with POI

Primary ovarian insufficiency (POI) is a clinical syndrome defined by loss of ovarian activity before the age of 40 years. It is also known by the term premature menopause and can be characterised by menstrual disturbance with raised gonadotropins and low estradiol. While incidence of POI depends on ethnicity, generally the risk is 1 in 1000 at age 30 and 1 in 100 at age 40.

The consequences of POI are unfortunately long term and severe including:

-          Cognitive dysfunction

-          Cardiovascular Disease

-          Autoimmune diseases

-          Osteoporosis

-          Increased mortality

-          Infertility

Presenting on the final day of COGI 2018, Prof. Claus Andersen explained that there is a key focus on providing women with POI the option of fertility preservation. So, what are the available treatments?

 

Approaches for fertility preservation

In order to plan the most effective fertility preservation treatment, Prof. Andersen stressed that it is important to predict as much as possible whether POI may be imminent. How can we do this? Well, often the condition is hereditary. In fact, Prof. Andersen suggested that around 10-15% of women with POI would have a first degree relative who has been affected. Similarly, if a woman has a mother or older sister affected this leads to an approximately 6x higher risk.

There are many more available options for treating women with imminent POI than confirmed POI. Therefore, it is essential women are informed about symptoms and risks. It is also essential that health care professionals understand this increased risk and consider it when diagnosing a potential case.

At COGI we were shown data suggesting that a quarter of women waited over five years for a correct diagnosis, with over half seeing more than three clinicians.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for predicting POI, however we can hope that this could be developed in future.

 

Imminent POI

For women with imminent POI, Prof. Andersen discussed three main first line approaches:

-          Vitrification of oocytes or embryos following ovarian stimulation

-          Freezing ovarian tissue

-          A combination of oocyte and ovarian tissue freezing

 

Confirmed POI

For those with confirmed POI, treatment is more complex. In some cases, sufferers may experience spontaneous pregnancy. One study of 358 women revealed that a cumulative pregnancy rate of 4.3% at 48 months.[1]

However the alternative is a procedure called in vitro follicle activation (IVA). This involves the removal of an ovary, the preparation of cortical tissue recruiting dormant primordial follicles, freezing and thawing before transplantation back into the POI sufferer. Research is still be undertaken into IVA. However, with refinement and improvement it could lead to a new effective strategy for POI patients to conceive their own genetic children.[2]  


Sources:

[1] M. Bidet, A. Bachelot, E. Bissauge et al. Resumption of Ovarian Function and Pregnancies in 358 Patients With Premature Ovarian Failure. Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey: 2012. 67(4). 231–232. doi: 10.1097/OGX.0b013e3182502238

[2] Kawamura K, Kawamura N, Hsueh AJ. Activation of dormant follicles: a new treatment for premature ovarian failure?. Curr Opin Obstet Gynecol. 2016;28(3):217-22.

ART and preterm birth - What is the link?

Preterm birth is associated with a number of adverse health conditions contributing to increased rates of infant mortality, morbidity and long-term disability.[1] For example, 3-4% of very preterm and very low birth weight babies have Cerebral Palsy. [2]

Speaking at COGI 2018, Prof. Andrew Shennan explained that the issue is considerable, costing the NHS around £1 billion a year.  To be able to effectively tackle the problem, we must understand the key causal factors along with developing and improving management and prevention techniques.

 

Is ART driving premature pregnancy?

The link between ART and increased incidence of multiple pregnancy is well established.[3] In 2014, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that over 20% of all births following ART were multiple births.

Also established is the understanding that multiple pregnancy can result in higher rates of mortality and morbidity both for the mother and child.[2] One of the key complications resulting from multiple pregnancy is pre-term birth. In a thought-provoking session, Prof. Isaac Blickstein discussed why we therefore must consider the major impact that ART could be having on rates of premature pregnancy.

Using mathematical analysis of current preterm and Cerebral Palsy population statistics, Prof. Blickstein demonstrated that out of 100,000 spontaneous births, 2000 twins would be expected, of which 1685 would be very premature and 59 would have Cerebral Palsy.  In contrast, just 10,000 births by ART would be expected to produce 7400 twins, 740 very premature births and 26 cases of Cerebral Palsy.

But how about using real world data? Well, sharing data from a recent population trial, Prof. Blickstein indicated that the incidence of twins after ART born at <32 weeks increased 27-fold from 1987 to 2010 and has not reduced from the peak incidence in the last decade. He suggested that this high level of multiple pregnancy is a key driver of the issue of pre-term birth that we see today.  

 

Managing preterm birth

The speakers agreed that unfortunately there is no clear and definitive strategy to manage pre-term birth, especially in regards to multiple pregnancy. It was discussed that short cervical length is clearly associated with preterm labour and can be used in predicting and preparing for prophylactic intervention. These include:

-          Progesterone

o   While progesterone has been shown to be effective in singleton birth, it has not in multiple pregnancy, even if the delivery is high risk.[4]

-          Cervical Pessary

o   There is no clear evidence to the benefit of the cervical pessary, with some supporting studies and some suggesting no benefit at all.

o   However, Prof. Ben Mol discussed that the treatment could be effective for patients that have a short cervix (25-30mm). He recommended that it may especially be useful for women with multiple pregnancy, as progesterone is not shown to be effective.

-          Cerclage

o   Cerclage needs to be further researched in modern randomised controlled trials. However, Prof. Shennan explained that it could be beneficial in high risk cases.

o   Abdominal cerclage was not recommended as a first line treatment however could be effective for women who had a failed vaginal cerclage.

-          Lifestyle factors

o   Smoking and obesity were outlined as factors increasing risk of complication.

In the UK, Public Health England have announced they will aim to reduce preterm birth to 6% by 2025. While this may not necessarily be reached, it hopefully means that there will be budget available to help future research.


Sources:

[1] Keelan JA, Newnham JP. Recent advances in the prevention of preterm birth. F1000Res. 2017;6:F1000 Faculty Rev-1139. Published 2017 Jul 18. doi:10.12688/f1000research.11385.1

 [2] Kim Van Naarden Braun, Nancy Doernberg, Laura Schieve, et al. Birth Prevalence of Cerebral Palsy: A Population-Based Study. Pediatrics. Jan 2016, 137 (1) e20152872; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-2872

 [3] Multiple pregnancies following assisted reproductive technologies – A happy consequence or double trouble? Seminars in Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, 19(4), 222-227, 2014 doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.siny.2014.03.001

 [4] Klein, K. , Rode, L. , Nicolaides, K. H., Krampl‐Bettelheim, E. , Tabor, A. and , (2011), Vaginal micronized progesterone and risk of preterm delivery in high‐risk twin pregnancies: secondary analysis of a placebo‐controlled randomized trial and meta‐analysis. Ultrasound Obstet Gynecol, 38: 281-287. doi:10.1002/uog.9092

Estrogens and Breast Cancer

16 years ago, a Women’s Health Institute (WHI) study was published.[1] This study proved revolutionary. It advised against the use of menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) and resulted in a media storm, causing confusion and a dramatic reduction in the number of prescriptions. Since then, reanalysis of the data and further research has suggested that in fact, for many women MHT is both effective and has a beneficial risk-benefit ratio.[2] As a result, the World Health Organisation have labelled MHT as a purveyor of benefit and not of risk.

Unfortunately, the lack of effective treatment following the WHI study left many women suffering. Speaking at COGI 2018, Prof. Fernand Labrie indicated that treatment of postmenopausal symptoms became a major unmet need. This, he suggested, was mainly due to the fear of estrogens.

 

Do estrogens promote breast cancer?

Dr. Christian Singer explained that exposure to estrogens is a determinant of breast cancer risk. He discussed that estrogens can induce and promote breast cancer, with mechanisms relating to oxidative metabolism in the Catechol pathway and e2 receptor binding leading to altered gene expression. However, recent data has suggested that estrogens alone do not have a significant effect and may even have a positive effect on breast cancer risk or cancer-related mortality.[3]

Further supporting this research, Dr. Herjan Bennink shared fascinating data on lifetime breast cancer risk in females, males and male-to-female transgender persons. Females have a lifetime breast cancer risk of 1 in 8, while males have a risk of 1 in 1000. In order to develop breast tissue, male-female transgender persons must undergo high dose of estrogen treatment for many years. However, risk of breast cancer in these persons remains 1 in 1000. This suggests that alternative factors must play a significant role in the development of breast cancer. Dr. Bennick suggested that these could include an array of considerations including number of menstrual cycles and lifestyle factors.

 

Could estrogens help to prevent breast cancer?

In a special countercurrent lecture, Dr. Bennink argued that while estrogens have a mechanism to promote breast cancer, they may also have some protective effect. As an example, he explained that pregnancy can result in a significant reduction in risk of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. We know that pregnancy is associated with a large increase in estrogens. One could hypothesise that this could be protective. However, the specific mechanism of action is not clear and more research is required to fully understand if estrogens could have some protective effects on breast cancer risk.  


Sources:

[1] Writing Group for the Women's Health Initiative Investigators. Risks and Benefits of Estrogen Plus Progestin in Healthy Postmenopausal WomenPrincipal Results From the Women's Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 2002;288(3):321–333. doi:10.1001/jama.288.3.321

[2] Roger A. Lobo; Where Are We 10 Years After the Women's Health Initiative?, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 98, Issue 5, 1 May 2013, Pages 1771–1780, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-4070

[3] Marjoribanks J, Farquhar C, Roberts H, Lethaby A, Lee J. Long-term hormone therapy for perimenopausal and postmenopausal women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD004143. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004143.pub5