A better understanding of PCOS offers fresh hope for new treatments

Polycystic ovary syndrome

I WAS 19, my face raging with acne, when my dermatologist started asking me questions that seemed to have nothing to do with my skin. “Are your periods regular? Do you have any excess body hair?” he asked. “You may have polycystic ovary syndrome,” he concluded. I had no idea what he was talking about. “It can make it difficult to have children,” he said as he saw me out.

Reeling, I went to my family doctor, who ordered blood tests and an ultrasound of my ovaries that confirmed I had polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. But she admitted she didn’t know much about it, leaving me confused and miserable about this mysterious condition I had suddenly been saddled with.

Many of my friends have recounted similar experiences. Despite PCOS being the most common hormonal condition among women aged 18 to 45 and a leading cause of infertility, it has been hard for us to get a straight answer about what it actually is or what to do about it.

Seventeen years on from my diagnosis, however, the tide is turning. Researchers are finally piecing together the causes of PCOS and it is being taken seriously as a condition that doesn’t just affect the ovaries, but also has cardiovascular, metabolic and psychological repercussions. As a result, the condition is even set to get a different name later this year (see “Misleading moniker”). And what’s more, this clearer understanding is opening up routes to new treatments.

The first doctors to characterise PCOS were Irving Stein and Michael Leventhal at Northwestern University in Chicago. In 1935, they published a report on …

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