L’Oreal-UNESCO award recognises researcher’s work on premature menopause

Elena Tucker, fertility researcher at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, is about to fly to Paris to receive the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Woman in Science International Rising Talent award. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer.

This story was originally published in The Saturday Age, March 18, 2016.

By Peter Barrett

Science has a reputation for being all head and no heart but for one Melbourne researcher the fight to crack a genetic code has become personal. Dr Elena Tucker, from Melbourne’s Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, will next week receive a prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science International Rising Talent award.

Handed out at the Sorbonne, in Paris, the award (Dr Tucker’s second, she received a Australian L’Oreal fellowship in 2014) recognises her recent work trying to understand premature menopause.

Also known as primary ovarian insufficiency (POI), this fertility-affecting disease affects one-in-100 women. By a quirk of fate, 32-year-old Dr Tucker, who stopped having regular periods when she was a teenager, is six months pregnant with her second child, conceived via IVF.

“I guess it was a bit coincidental that I fell into the lab that had the opportunity to study these women,” she says of her study’s 30 patients, who have the most severe form of POI, developed in childhood and adolescence.

“But I definitely had the motivation because although I didn’t have premature menopause, I did have fertility problems and from a young age I’ve known it would be difficult to have kids. It did occupy my thoughts a fair bit and the idea of being able to help some women that experienced that feeling is pretty important to me – and motivating.”

The average age of menopause is 51. But it’s still unclear why premature menopause can strike some girls and young women so early. Dr Tucker has spent the past year crunching the DNA sequences of the women in her study, hoping to isolate the gene or genes responsible so other at-risk women can be identified before the damage of menopause sets in. This would enable eggs to be preserved for future IVF use.

“Then, more broadly, if we can understand what goes wrong with ovaries that’s when we can start to think about how to treat it and intervene to prevent that problem.”

Premature menopause has also been linked to osteoporosis, heart disease and early mortality.

But finding the right gene is like looking through a book with 3 billion letters, Dr Tucker explains. “We’re searching through to find the single spelling mistake that changes the book’s meaning. It’s quite a challenge.” Complicating the task are all the other “spelling mistakes”: genes that make some people tall or short, others blonde or brunette, for example.

Progress, she says, will be incremental, with some discoveries likely to happen within the next few months. A full understanding of the disease, though, is still years away.

For the moment Dr Tucker is looking forward to Paris where next week she’ll be one of 15 international scientists and the only Australian to receive the rising talent award, worth €15,000 ($22,133). “I’m feeling pretty proud, I guess, and excited to have an opportunity to represent women in science,” she says. “It’s come at a pretty important time in my career. I’m about to go on maternity leave again, so the funds from the award mean that I’m going to be able to keep the sequencing part of my project ticking along while I’m away.”