In the scientific world of reproductive biology, the typical objective of research is either to find a new way to enhance fertilization or a new way to prevent it.

Diane Duffy, PhD, is considering both options as she begins a five-year, $3.36 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Dr. Duffy, Professor of Physiological Sciences, is one of two PIs – principal investigators – on the research that will study the protein known as neurotensin to better understand its ability to mediate ovulation. Her co-investigator is long-time research colleague Thomas Curry, PhD, at the University of Kentucky. 

The ultimate goal of their research is determine if the neurotensin pathway can be exploited to improve fertility or help them identify targets for the development of new contraceptives.

Dr. Duffy says that gene studies have shown neurotensin to be one of the proteins most active during ovulation.

“This rapid increase in expression makes us think that it is likely important,” Dr. Duffy says. “But, there is a lot we don’t know.”

For instance, scientists know that there are at least three “receptors” that are influenced by neurotensin but they don’t know which ones are important for ovulation.

“No one has any idea what role neurotensin might play in ovulation,” she says. “Ultimately neurotensin or its receptors may be useful targets for infertility treatments or contraceptives.  We just don’t know enough yet. Hopefully, the next five years of work will provide some answers.”

Dr. Duffy says it’s too early to tell if women would take an injection or swallow a pill to control the protein or its receptors.

The scientists will use different animal models to examine the role of neurotensin in ovulation, while both will study the effects in human cells/tissues.

“As an endocrinologist, I am experienced in studying hormone-receptor interactions as well as examination of angiogenesis (the formation of blood vessels in the ovary). My colleague has expertise in extracellular matrix remodeling, a key force in ovulation,” Dr. Duffy says. “This complementary expertise will help move the project forward more rapidly.”