Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine disorder of premenopausal women, characterized by hyperandrogenism, polycystic ovaries, and chronic anovulation along with insulin resistance and abdominal obesity as frequent metabolic traits. Although, PCOS manifests clinically during adolescence, emerging data suggest that the natural history of PCOS may originate in intrauterine life.
Evidence from experimental, clinical, and genetic research supporting the hypothesis for the fetal origins of PCOS has been analyzed.
Female primates, exposed in utero to androgen excess, exhibit the phenotypic features of PCOS during adult life. Clinical observations also support a potential fetal origin of PCOS. Women with fetal androgen excess disorders, including congenital 21-hydroxylase deficiency and congenital adrenal virilizing tumors, develop features characteristic of PCOS during adulthood despite the normalization of androgen excess after birth. The potential mechanisms of fetal androgen excess leading to a PCOS phenotype in humans are not clearly understood. However, maternal and/or fetal hyperandrogenism can provide a plausible mechanism for fetal programming of PCOS, and this, in part, may be genetically determined. Thus, genetic association studies have indicated that common polymorphic variants of genes determining androgen activity or genes that influence the availability of androgens to target tissues are associated with PCOS and increased androgen levels. These genomic variants may provide the genetic link to prenatal androgenization in human PCOS.
Prenatal androgenization of the female fetus induced by genetic and environmental factors, or the interaction of both, may program differentiating target tissues toward the development of PCOS phenotype in adult life.