For mothers with extreme morning sickness, study offers new hope

Understanding the genetic component of hyperemesis gravidarum is the first step toward a treatment.

For mothers with extreme morning sickness, study offers new hope

It’s commonly referred to as “extreme morning sickness,” but for the approximately 2% of pregnant women who experience hyperemesis gravidarum, the words seem like a highly inadequate representation of the symptoms that often persist around the clock for the duration of pregnancy.

A new study published in the journal Nature Communications, however, shows that researchers are listening—and that an effective treatment for hyperemesis gravidarum may soon be on the way.

The study from UCLA researchers questioned existing beliefs about the cause of HG and was the first to identify two genes, GDF15 and IGFBP7, that are associated with the condition. This suggests a new avenue for HG treatment, says the study’s co-author Marlena Fejzo, an associate researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.


“It is my hope that one day a medication that affects this pathway will be used to successfully treat and possibly cure hyperemesis gravidarum,” says Fejzo in a press release, explaining the next step is determining whether the abnormally elevated levels of proteins linked to GDF15 and IGFBP7 can be safely adjusted.

The cause is a deeply personal one for Fejzo, who lost a pregnancy at 15 weeks to HG in 1999 and carried another pregnancy to term with debilitating symptoms the whole time.

And with previous studies showing that the daughters and sisters of women who dealt with HG are at a heightened risk for experiencing it as well, understanding the genetic component seems inextricably linked to a potential treatment.

Liz Tenety, Motherly’s co-founder, says the new findings shed light on her experience.

“My mother, and her mother [my grandmother] and I all suffered from morning sickness so severe that we couldn’t even work during our first trimesters. My grandmother even had to leave her job over the condition, and I took time off from work before prescription medication kicked in and offered some relief,” Tenety says. “While I was grateful to have women in my family who understood what I was going through, the struggle to survive this brutal period of pregnancy is a family memory I’d rather not have.”

Although 70 to 80% of expectant mothers experience some form of nausea or vomiting, HG is a condition all its own that is tied to extreme, persistent nausea, dehydration and malnutrition. It is the second leading cause of hospitalizations among pregnant women and is linked to maternal or fetal mortality in some cases.

However, until now, researchers have been uncertain about the causes behind HG—with sources like WebMD noting vaguely, “They believe it's related to a rise in hormone levels.”

The new study provides an important counter to that. Says Fejzo, “It has long been assumed that the pregnancy hormones, human chorionic gonadotropin or estrogen, were the likely culprits of extreme nausea and vomiting, but our study found no evidence to support this.”

Current treatments for HG are aimed more at managing the symptoms rather than getting to the root of the condition. But now, thanks to this fascinating finding about the apparent genetic components, there is new hope for women who’ve struggled with HG—both for them and generations to come.

"I’m so grateful that medical experts are diving deep in the genetic roots of this condition. It gives me hope that someday my daughter (worth the HG struggle), might not have to suffer so much to bring her children into the world,” Tenety reveals.

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