Expanding the understanding of polycystic ovary syndrome
Elisabet Stener-Victorin researches women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and was one of the first to notice the disease’s connection with mental illness. Her aim is to understand the causes behind the syndrome and to contribute to better treatment.
What are you researching?
“I am researching polycystic ovary syndrome, the most common hormonal and metabolic disorder in women. We alternate between clinical trials and preclinical experiments in order to understand the underlying causes of the disease, with the aim of finding better treatments in the future.
Common symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, embarrassing hair growth, sometimes also thinning of the hair and difficulties in having children. Those affected also have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. We were one of the first groups to also notice mental illness among these women. Many suffer from anxiety or depression and even other psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia.”
How far has the research come?
“We and other research groups have identified about 20 genetic variations with a strong connection to the disease, but they only explain a small part of the heredity. Other factors, including environmental factors during foetal life, need to be investigated. My group has shown in a mouse model that behavioural changes caused by high levels of male hormones at the foetal stage are inherited for several generations. This indicates that effects during foetal life can lead to lasting epigenetic changes.
There has also been some progress regarding treatment. We have shown that exercise and electroacupuncture improve insulin sensitivity, lower hormone levels and even reverse some epigenetic changes in women with PCOS.”
What is your hope for the future?
“The long-term aim is to understand the disease’s development and underlying mechanisms and lay the foundations for preventive and, in the best case, curative treatment. In the short term, the health care services need to become much better at diagnosing, informing and, with existing palliative treatments, taking care of these women. The number of diagnoses in Sweden is remarkably low, which indicates significant under-diagnosis.”
Professor of Reproductive Physiology at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology
Elisabet Stener-Victorin was born in Varberg in 1964. She studied physiotherapy at Lund University, graduating in 1985, and completed her doctorate at the University of Gothenburg in 2000. She was a postdoctoral researcher at the International University of Health and Welfare, Otawara, Japan, 2002–2003, and became associate professor in 2004. In 2015 she moved her research group from Gothenburg to Karolinska Institutet.
From 2009–2016, Stener-Victorin was a visiting professor at Heilongjiang University, Harbin, China. Since 2018 she has been a visiting professor at Guangzhou Medical University, China. Elisabet Stener-Victorin was appointed Professor of Reproductive Physiology at Karolinska Institutet on 1 November 2017.
Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "From Cell to Society" 2018