Scientists Find Cause Behind Morning Sickness, Potentially Ending Misery for Many

Imagine a world where morning sickness is just a memory, a fleeting discomfort of the past for expectant mothers.

This could soon be a reality, thanks to a groundbreaking discovery in the field of pregnancy health.

A recent study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, reveals that a hormone known as GDF15, abundantly produced by the fetal portion of the placenta, could be the key to unlocking the mystery of morning sickness.

The Culprit Behind Morning Sickness: GDF15

For years, morning sickness has been an unwelcome companion for many pregnant women, with about 70% experiencing this discomfort. However, for up to 3% of pregnant women in the U.S., this condition escalates to hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe and often debilitating form of nausea and vomiting.

Notable figures like Catherine, Princess of Wales, comedian Amy Schumer, and singer Kelly Clarkson have openly shared their struggles with this condition.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr. Stephen O’Rahilly, have pinpointed the surge of GDF15 in the first trimester as a significant factor. This hormone, produced under cellular stress, sends a signal to the brain, indicating potential harm to the body.

“It’s the baby who is making you sick,” Dr. O’Rahilly succinctly puts it.

A Protective Evolutionary Mechanism?

The study suggests an intriguing evolutionary angle to this phenomenon.

The increase in GDF15 may be a protective mechanism, evolved to shield the developing fetus from potential dietary toxins. It’s as if the placenta is cautioning the mother to be mindful of her food choices.

Genetic Predisposition

Another fascinating aspect of this study is the genetic component.

It appears that genetic variants influencing pre-pregnancy levels of GDF15 can significantly affect a woman’s susceptibility to hyperemesis gravidarum. This revelation opens up new avenues for preemptive treatments, especially for women at higher risk.

From Personal Tragedy to Scientific Breakthrough

Marlena Fejzo, a geneticist at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the study, has a personal connection to this research.

After suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum and tragically losing her baby, Fejzo dedicated her career to understanding and treating this condition. The prospect of preventing and effectively treating this illness is a significant milestone for her.

A Safer Approach to Treatment

While reducing GDF15 levels might seem like a straightforward solution, it could potentially harm the pregnancy.

Dr. Samuel Breit, who first identified GDF15 in 1997, suggests targeting the receptors in the mother’s brain as a safer alternative. This approach would alleviate the symptoms without adversely affecting the fetus.

Implications Beyond Pregnancy

The potential applications of GDF15-targeting drugs extend beyond pregnancy.

Companies like Pfizer are exploring their use in treating cachexia, a severe wasting syndrome, and alleviating nausea in chemotherapy patients.

About half of pregnant women currently find relief from existing treatments, but this new research offers hope for a more effective and targeted approach.

A New Era In Pregnancy Care

The implications of this study are profound.

Not only does it offer a clearer understanding of the biological underpinnings of morning sickness, but it also opens the door to more effective and personalized treatments.

With these advancements, the dream of a morning sickness-free pregnancy is closer than ever.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.