The researchers, from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Monash University and Prince Henry's Institute of Medical Research, made the discovery while investigating how egg cells die.
They found that two specific proteins, called PUMA and NOXA, cause the death of egg cells in the ovaries. The finding may lead to new strategies that protect women's fertility by blocking the activity of these two proteins.
Associate Professor Clare Scott from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute said the research showed that when the DNA of egg cells is damaged following exposure to radiation or chemotherapy, such as that received during some cancer treatments, PUMA and NOXA trigger the death of the damaged eggs. This egg cell death causes many female cancer patients to become infertile.
"PUMA and NOXA can trigger cell death, and have been found to be necessary for the death of many different cell types in response to DNA damage," Associate Professor Scott, who is also an oncologist at The Royal Melbourne and Royal Women's Hospitals, said. "This removal of damaged cells is a natural process that is essential to maintaining health but, for women undergoing cancer treatment, can be devastating when it leads to infertility."