Slow the Flow: New Drug Could Put an End to Heavy Periods

inflatable uterus
A Chinese woman and her child pass through an air structure in the shape of a uterus on a street March 6, 2005 in Shanghai, China. China Photos/Getty Image

A drug targeting one particular protein may someday help women with heavy periods slow their flow. According to researchers from the University of Edinburgh, a drug called DMOG might trick a uterus into producing more of a certain protein, H1F-1a, which is necessary to repair the lining shed each month during periods. The researchers published their findings, based on experiments with mice and human tissue, on Tuesday in Nature Communications.

In women with heavy menstrual bleeding—which is about one in four women—the healing that has to happen after the uterus sheds its skin doesn't happen as fast as it should. For some, the solution is hormonal contraceptives. In addition to preventing pregnancies, many women also get lighter periods while they use these drugs. But not all women want or are able to take hormonal contraceptives; if a woman is trying to get pregnant, for example, that option is off the table.

Figuring out a way to stop heavy bleeding without messing with hormones or surgery would be welcome. The same group of researchers found in 2016 that women who had particularly heavy bleeding had lower levels of the H1F-1a protein in the lining of their uteruses, New Scientist reported, and confirmed that finding again in this paper. (If you're squeamish about periods, you may want to skip this next bit: the researchers figured out which women had heavy menstrual bleeding by collecting used pads and tampons and measuring the blood collected.)

tampons without applicator
A picture taken in Nantes, France on February 24, 2016 shows tampons. LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

In both their previous work and for their most recent experiments, the researchers also looked at what happens in the uterus itself during a period by studying mice. Mice don't usually have menstrual cycles like humans do, though there are exceptions. In 2016, Australian researchers discovered that the African spiny mouse had a short, nine-day cycle, Nature reported. Spiny mice weren't used for this study; instead, researchers used hormones to force the mice to experience a human-like cycle.

When the mice were menstruating, the levels of oxygen in their uterine linings decreased. A lack of oxygen—also known as hypoxia—seems to stabilize the H1F-1a protein and allow it to get to work repairing the uterine lining. This is the first time that this relationship has been observed, researcher Dr. Jackie Maybin noted in a press release that accompanied the paper.

In women with heavy menstrual bleeding, the oxygen levels in the lining doesn't seem to drop as low as it ought to and H1F-1a isn't as active. But a drug called dimethyloxalylglycine, or DMOG, can trick the tissue into believing oxygen levels are lower than they are—which should make the H1F-1a protein repair the lining as it should.

Women who are looking for an immediate solution to heavy bleeding will have to look elsewhere for now; DMOG is not an FDA-approved drug for anything. However, other scientists are also interested in the drug's potential as a medical treatment. One group has been testing DMOG as a potential tool to protect against radiation exposure, Science reported.