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Pausing Menopause: Could New Pill Preserve a Woman's Prime?

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WebMD Health News

July 28, 2000 -- Someday women may be able to take a birth control pill for years on end -- stopping only when they want to become pregnant or go through menopause. By doing this, woman may be able to safeguard their eggs from the natural cycle of death and, in theory, save them until they want to use them to get pregnant.

At least that's the goal of a new birth control medication now under development in Canada. The pill has been dubbed the 'career' pill because it would most likely be popular among women who want to delay having families in favor of careers.

Birth control pills available today prevent pregnancy by suppressing the monthly release of a mature egg, which occurs prior to menstruation. But even in women who take these pills, many immature eggs die each month. A woman's ovaries don't produce new eggs. Instead, they contain the full amount of eggs they will ever have before a woman is even born, and when all eggs are gone, menopause begins.

What Roger Gosden, PhD, and other fertility experts, hope to develop is a pill or other method that could halt the process of egg death -- effectively shutting down the 'biological clock' that regulates fertility and menopause. Because the quality and number of eggs decline over time, such a product could help women in their 30s or 40s who have trouble conceiving. Gosden is director of reproductive biology at McGill University Health Center in Montreal.

A spokeswoman for Gosden tells WebMD the research is at a preliminary stage and such a product is 10 to 15 years away from possibly going on the market. Gosden's goal, says the spokeswoman, is to allow women to devote time to a career, if that is what they want, and to postpone child-bearing until they are ready, regardless of whether their body has aged past the child-bearing prime time.

Among the many issues to be worked out, admits Gosden, is whether the eggs would be capable of being fertilized or would be damaged. "For example, if a woman starts to take this new pill at the age of 17, and only stops at 47 years old, will her eggs have the characteristics of a woman of 47 or a woman of 17? We don't know, and we won't know until the research is complete," Gosden said in an interview with a Montreal publication.

Such a pill or device would also have an additional effect beyond preserving fertility. If ovulation is suppressed, the woman would also be suppressing monthly menstruation. Women can suppress their periods by taking a birth control pill continuously for weeks on end, without the so-called skip week, in which they stop or take an inactive pill for seven days. This is usually only done for 'special' occasions, such as honeymoons or vacations.

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