SoCal researcher zeroing in on a cause for extreme morning sickness

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Nearly 20 years ago, researcher Marlena Fejzo suffered a miscarriage due to hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. (KABC)

Nearly 20 years ago, researcher Marlena Fejzo suffered a miscarriage due to hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. Since then, she's worked tirelessly to find a reason behind the condition that affects about 2 percent of pregnant women.

While it's largely unknown, some may be more familiar with the condition as it made headlines during Kate Middleton's pregnancies. Now, with the help of 23andMe, Fejzo believes she's zeroed in on a cause, which would be the first step toward a treatment.

Jennie Karrer knows how bad extreme morning sickness can get. She has healthy children now, but during both pregnancies, she got so sick that on some days, she couldn't get out of bed.

Karrer said, "It feels like a very bad stomach flu where you want to die because you can't do anything. You can't move, you know?"

It is believed that the severe nausea is caused by a rise in hormone levels, however, the absolute cause is still unknown.

Expectant mothers with hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG, get nausea and vomiting, lose their appetites and drop weight. The symptoms of HG usually appear between four to six weeks of pregnancy and can peak between nine and 13 weeks.

It can get so bad that they need IVs, medication and in some cases, even feeding tubes. At UCLA, Fejzo studied thousands of pregnant moms' DNA and noticed that proteins from two genes are abnormally high in women with HG.

"The protein then goes to the brain and signals this loss of appetite and nausea and vomiting in extreme cases. So there's quite a bit of evidence now that it is a cause," Fejzo said.

While her discovery doesn't translate into immediate relief, it's a great start to finding a treatment. .

"Finally, we have some answers so we can start to look at therapies that will target those proteins and hopefully lower them safely in pregnancy." Fejzo said.

Karrer says treatment for HG would be amazing: "I would be so happy for other moms, and if I were supposed to have another kid, I would be happy for myself, obviously."

At UCLA, Fejzo has already started research to prove the cause. Then come trials for therapies that she hopes would be safe for pregnant women. Since the two genes are also responsible for a form of extreme nausea that occurs in cancer patients, she's hoping that drug development will be expedited.
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