Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) sounds like a rare disorder but it is surprisingly common. This is a disorder with onset in early adolescence effecting up to 10% of young women. Characteristic signs and symptoms include increasing facial and body hair, hair loss from the scalp, muscular or heavy build, acne, thickening and darkening of the skin known as acanthosis nigricans, blood sugar problems including type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and irregular menstrual cycles and infertility. In older women with PCOS coronary artery disease is more common. In severe cases deepening of the voice and enlargement of the clitoris (clitoromegaly) can be seen. Before the underlying hormone disorders were clarified, the main method of diagnosing this disorder was by finding multiple cysts on the ovary. We now understand that the main problem is not the ovarian cysts but metabolic disorders including insulin resistance and elevated male hormone levels (testosterone) in the blood.
Another misconception about PCOS is that it only occurs in overweight women. Obesity is common in PCOS but thin women are also capable of developing PCOS. The underlying hormone problems are complex but are thought to be at least in part due to high insulin levels in the blood resulting from insulin resistance. With insulin resistance the body requires high levels of insulin due to insensitivity of the tissues to insulin’s presence.
What treatments are available for PCOS? There are very few, if any, drugs specifically approved for the treatment of PCOS. This is probably because of the low profit potential for treating this disorder. Drug companies cannot afford to invest millions of dollars in research because almost all of the existing standard therapies are generic drugs. Some of the most useful medications for treating PCOS are drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes because of their effect to reduce insulin resistance. These drugs are metformin and Actos. Metformin is the most popular oral medication for diabetes treatment in the U.S. Actos has been available for about 10 years but due to recent negative publicity about an unproven risk of bladder cancer, its popularity is declining. Neither drug is approved by the FDA for treatment of PCOS but multiple studies confirm the clinical and hormonal benefits of using these medications in this disorder. In 2011 research was published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism suggesting that the generic cholesterol lowering drug, simvastatin may also show benefits similar to metformin for the treatment of PCOS.
In the late 1980’s, I along with Dr. Lester Gabrilove at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, published our research showing that an anti-fungal medication, ketoconazole, could reverse the hormonal, physical and metabolic problems associated with PCOS. Due to the potential toxicity of ketoconazole this therapy never gained wide spread acceptance. The manufacturer refused to fund additional studies to determine how to more effectively use this drug, due to the low profit potential and liability concerns.
This information is strictly for educational puroses. Due to high risk of toxicity of medical therapy in young women who can potentially become fertile under treatment for PCOS, no drug should be taken without the close supervision of a physician. The reader agrees to the Terms of Service of this website, metabolism.com