Male hormones, also called androgens, help drive the development of follicles, structures that contain and ultimately release an egg that can be fertilised by a man's sperm, said a study.
This discovery can provide potential biological targets to enhance fertility in women with diminished ovarian reserve who produce few or no follicles in response to the IVF drugs designed to boost follicle development.
"There is a raging debate in the reproductive endocrinology field about what male hormones are doing in female fertility," said Stephen R. Hammes, professor of endocrinology at New York-based University of Rochester's school of medicine and dentistry.
"Our study does not solve the controversy, but, along with some earlier seminal studies from other groups, it does tell us that we can not dismiss male hormones. They might actually be doing something useful," Hammes added.
Using multiple animal models and cell experiments, Hammes and lead author Aritro Sen, professor of endocrinology at University of Rochester, found that male hormones promote follicle development in two ways.
First, they prevent follicles from dying at an early stage. They do this by ramping up a molecule that stops cells from self destructing, a process called apoptosis.
If a woman does not have enough androgens, more of her follicles may be dying and fewer progressing to a mature stage when they produce and release an egg.
"Second, androgens make ovarian cells more sensitive to follicle-stimulating hormone or FSH, which promotes follicle growth," said Sen.
They do this by creating more FSH receptors, molecules on the surface of ovarian cells that jump-start the follicle making process in response to the hormone.
"Androgens are increasing follicle growth and ensuring follicles do not die, exactly what you want when providing fertility treatment," said Hammes.
The androgen-treated female mice also released larger numbers of eggs with ovulation.
The IVF drugs are designed to do just that - enhance ovulation.
Hammes said the study calls for further clinical trials to determine whether androgens can have a positive effect on fertility when given at the right doses.
The paper was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.