HUNTER researchers are behind a breakthrough that has "huge potential" to change the lives of women suffering endometrial cancer, endometriosis, and infertility.
Researchers from the University of Newcastle and HMRI believe they have solved a 75-year-old scientific mystery by pinpointing an elusive cell behind a raft of health conditions affecting the uterus. Since their findings were published in the prestigious journal, Cell Stem Cell, the team has been contacted from scientists all over the world offering their congratulations and thanks.
"It is a good achievement in the field," lead researcher, Associate Professor Pradeep Tanwar, said. "In this resource we were able to lay out how the uterus repairs after menses, the processes involved, and what happens when those cells don't perform that function. Naturally, everybody knows that women menses, but nobody really understood completely how that process worked - so that has been a long-standing question in the field."
The cell - which has a genetic signal known as Axin2 - is responsible for the rapid regeneration of the womb lining after menstruation. But when it becomes dysfunctional or mutated, it can fuel uterine illnesses - like endometriosis and endometrial cancer, and undermine the success of IVF.
"What we are able to show is that if you cause mutations in these cells, you get endometrial cancer," he said. "What we now hypothesise is that when women have endometriosis, what they have is an expansion of these mutated cells. These cells end up going into the abdominal cavity. Because they are so highly regenerative - because these are the cells that are repairing the uterus in each cycle - they start making uterine-like tissues in the abdominal cavity - which is what endometriosis is.
"Some women have repeated failed IVF cycles because their endometrium is too thin, and the embryos cannot implant. We now know that these cells in these women are going to be defective, and that is why the repair is not happening properly. Other endometrial cells might mutate as well, but this is the dominant cell type - the queen bee."
The Hunter researchers spent seven years "exhaustively testing" their discovery.
They collected and banked gynaecological tissue samples from hundreds of women in the Hunter.
Associate Professor Tanwar said many scientists from around the world were excited about their discovery, as it meant they too could start investigating different conditions on different populations.
"There have been so many questions about these conditions, and this has given us a framework to start addressing those, and - hopefully - come up with some answers," he said. "We are really proud. It was a long journey, so we wanted to publish in the most prestigious journal possible."
Endometriosis affects 700,000 women in Australia, with the painful condition often requiring multiple surgeries and impacting fertility in more than 30 per cent of cases. Around 3000 women are diagnosed with uterine cancer each year, resulting in more than 500 deaths.
"There is huge potential in the study, and there is huge potential in what we are doing," he said. "This cell is affecting many of these gynaecological diseases, which are mainly uterine based."