New research has shed light on the cause of extreme pregnancy sickness, known as hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), and may offer hope for potential treatment options. Scientists have discovered that babies produce a hormone called GDF15, which can cause severe sickness in pregnant women. The study found that the degree of sickness experienced by women was related to the amount of hormone produced in the womb and prior exposure. This new understanding could potentially lead to the development of a treatment to prevent HG from occurring.
HG affects between one and three in 100 pregnancies and can be life-threatening to both the mother and the fetus. Many women suffering from HG require intravenous fluids in the hospital to prevent dehydration. Symptoms can include severe vomiting, with some mothers reporting being sick up to 50 times a day throughout their pregnancies.
One woman, Susie Verrill, shared her traumatic experience with HG, which made her consider terminating her pregnancies. Verrill described her inability to exist and the overwhelming sickness that confined her to her bedroom for five months. She emphasized the impact of HG on every aspect of her life and the support she received from her partner, Olympian Greg Rutherford, who became her caregiver.
The Princess of Wales famously suffered from HG during all three of her pregnancies. Previous studies had suggested a link between pregnancy sickness and GDF15, but a "full mechanistic understanding" was lacking. The recent research involved scientists from the University of Cambridge, as well as researchers from Scotland, the USA, and Sri Lanka. They found that women with a genetic variant putting them at a greater risk of HG had lower levels of the hormone, while women with the blood disorder beta thalassemia, which causes high levels of GDF15 prior to pregnancy, experienced little nausea or vomiting.
The discovery of the hormone's role in HG and its specific receptor in the mother's brain opens up possibilities for effective and safe treatments in the future. The research has brought attention to the neglected issue of HG, with the hope that more resources and support will be directed towards helping women who suffer from this debilitating condition.