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The Fertility Show, Manchester Central, 24-25 March 2018

Issue 653 (23 April 2012)


Welcome to BioNews by email, published by the Progress Educational Trust, providing you with news, comment and reviews on genetics, assisted conception, embryo/stem cell research and related areas.

Visit the BioNews website at where you can subscribe for free to receive BioNews by email in one of three formats, and search the archive of more than 6,000 articles.





News Digest




UK DonorLink: the service users' perspective on its uncertain future

By Rachel Pepa

On behalf of the UK DonorLink Registrants Panel

Appeared in BioNews 653
On 8 March staff at UK DonorLink (UKDL) were informed that the Government would discontinue the charity's funding as of September this year. They were told that the voluntary contact register service it provides for adults conceived with, or who donated, sperm or eggs before August 1991 would be transferred to the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) by means of a single tender process, meaning it would be combined with the promotion of donor conception.

The letter explaining Anne Milton's decision as Public Health Minister said: 'We needed to weigh up our limited recourse to funding, the requirements of the whole sector and organisations' flexibility to adapt to the changing environment. The aim of supporting NGDT to undertake a broader role is in recognition of this, and of the very real risk of no Departmental funding for gamete donation otherwise'.

A voluntary register service for donor-conceived (DC) adults and past donors who are genetically related is, in our view as the UKDL Registrants Panel, neither part of the 'whole sector' nor should it be seen as part of funding for 'gamete donation'.

As many BioNews readers will know, NGDT was set up to raise awareness, and alleviate the shortage, of egg and sperm donors in the UK – essentially promoting donor recruitment (that there actually is a shortage of sperm donors is disputed (1)). It employs no professional support staff and has no track record of service provision.

The choice of NGDT makes clear that the Minister sees no conflict of interest here, and has no concerns about transferring a sensitive service to an unproven provider. This conflict is obvious to DC people and past donors on the Registrants Panel, who wrote to the Minister with their concerns last autumn when NGDT first expressed an interest. These concerns were only heightened when NGDT refused to share their proposals with us.

Not only is the fertility industry responsible for DC adults having no information about their biological families on their donor's side, but, we were alarmed to read, even now some clinics restrict the release of non-identifying donor information to parents. This is despite the HFEA's current guidance (as discussed in BioNews 646), and consequently many DC people mistrust the industry.

The conflict was also recognised by the British Infertility Counselling Association, who have stressed the need for the register to be independent of the fertility sector, stating: 'The body that maintains the Register cannot be linked in any way to donor recruitment or any commercial service… The dignity and integrity of the Register and of the registrants themselves requires that it be entirely separate to such activity' (2).

What has followed seems nothing short of a shambles. It has now emerged that the intention to use a single tender process is almost certainly against the rules of tendering. There will instead need to be an open tender, with a detailed service specification under EU rules which makes it likely to be a lengthy process (well in excess of the six months of funding UKDL and NGDT each have left).

This haphazard approach to meeting the needs of DC people stands in complete contrast to the recommendations of the Law Reform Committee of the Parliament of Victoria in Australia released at the start of this month. Its belief is that the state has a responsibility to provide all DC people with an opportunity to access information (including identifying information) about their donors, regardless of when they were born.

This is on the grounds that, first, this is their fundamental human right and, second, in the field of assisted reproduction the welfare and interests of people born as a result outweighs all other concerns (3). It recommends the introduction of DNA matching where appropriate (i.e. a service like UKDL), incorporating factors that have been recognised by UKDL since its inception as crucial to the running of a successful register. These include access to ample professional support, intermediary services and counselling for registrants, management by a neutral agency with no links to the fertility industry and a free service.

Searching for donors or half-siblings is emotionally demanding. As the Victorian report notes: 'Contact between donor-conception stakeholders… is still very new and uncharted territory. All parties will feel vulnerable throughout this process and will struggle to determine the appropriate way to proceed. It is important that particularly leading up to and during this process, comprehensive counselling and support services be available to these people and their families' (4).

This is made yet more difficult by the inexact nature of DNA matching. While the paternity and maternity DNA analysis required to match a DC person with the donor is clear-cut, matching siblings through the DNA markers used for paternity testing (which is what UKDL does) can only provide a probability that people are half-siblings, throwing up false positives and false negatives. This necessitates scientific advice as well as emotional support for registrants as they navigate the DNA testing process. Making matches is not a job for bureaucrats, but for suitably qualified professionals - social workers and/or counsellors, skilled intermediaries who can help donor relatives to develop relationships slowly and safely.

To conclude, running a voluntary register with any meaningful degree of success, that is to say, a register that promotes the welfare of its registrants and keeps them safe, is a highly specialist enterprise. UKDL was the first, and, until recently, the only register in the world to use DNA matching. In the eight years that it has been operating its employees have built up invaluable expertise in handling DNA test results and mediating between donor relatives accordingly.

That the Government has even contemplated handing control of the service over to the NGDT is total madness. This is an organisation largely run by volunteers, with no professional staff, no experience of providing intermediary services, and which has expressed an intention to charge registrants for the service - not to mention its conflict of interest due to close ties to the fertility industry. The Registrants Panel firmly believe that the register should remain in UKDL's hands. Unfortunately it seems we will not be assured of this anytime soon.

Guardian | 19 September 2010
2) British Infertility Counsellors Association, Letter to the Department of Health
British Infertility Counsellors Association | 07 November 2011
Parliament of Victoria | 28 March 2012
Parliament of Victoria | 28 March 2012


28 July 2014 - by Natasha Canfer 
In July 2014, the Department of Health announced that it had awarded the National Gamete Donation Trust funding to set up an independent National Sperm Bank in partnership with Birmingham Women's Hospital....
04 March 2013 - by Cait McDonagh 
Another full house for the final event of Progress Educational Trust's 'When it Takes More Than Two' series. This time attendees were invited to consider gamete donation from the perspective of the donor conceived...
14 January 2013 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The image of the sperm donor nipping off between lectures to casually donate for a few quid of beer money was neatly set aside by this thought-provoking debate. In his place, in strode the complex male – knowledgeable, thoughtful, sensitive… and probably over 25...
26 November 2012 - by Sarah Norcross 
Gamete donation is big business at the Fertility Show. Why do clinics from far and wide pay thousands of pounds to exhibit in London? The simple answer is to make money. But why come to the UK? Because in the UK there is a shortage of gamete donors, or at least a perceived shortage, that's why...
23 July 2012 - by Walter Merricks 
To many people concerned with donor conception - patients, parents, donors and donor-conceived people - the Government plans to abolish the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) sound extremely worrying...

19 September 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
UK DonorLink (UKDL) has been offered a further grant from the UK Government while alternative funding options for the service are considered....
30 August 2011 - by Dr Marilyn Crawshaw 
A BBC1 documentary 'Donor Mum: The children I've never met' is to be broadcast at 10.35pm tonight (30 August). The programme tells the extraordinary story of a woman - herself the single mother by choice of a donor insemination-conceived adult son – meeting with the twins born from her egg donation nineteen years ago....
22 August 2011 - by Dr Vivienne Raper 
UK Donor Link (UKDL) - the voluntary contact register for adults conceived with or who donated sperm or eggs before August 1991 - is threatened with closure...
23 August 2010 - by Professor Eric Blyth, Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, Dr Lucy Frith, Dr Caroline Jones and Dr Jennifer Speirs 
The UK government's review of Arm's Length Bodies (ALB) in the National Health Service has indicated that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has had its day as a free-standing regulatory body...


Evaluating egg-sharing: new findings on old debates

23 April 2012

By Zeynep Gürtin-Broadbent

Appeared in BioNews 653
Egg-sharing refers to a scheme where a woman undergoing fertility treatment donates a portion of her eggs to an anonymously matched recipient in exchange for a reduction in treatment costs.

As a very specific form of egg donation, egg-sharing has generated heated debate since its introduction in the UK in 1998. While proponents argue it provides a win-win solution, allowing two women to help each other conceive, critics talk of the potential ethical and psychological consequences.

Until recently, there has been very little empirical data to inform these discussions. However, new research (1,2), conducted by myself and Professor Susan Golombok at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research in collaboration with the London Women's Clinic, hopes to redress this balance. The two-year study provides detailed perspectives from women who have taken part in egg-sharing, offering the first in-depth and comparative insight into the experiences, opinions and attitudes of egg-share donors and recipients.

Over the years, concerns around egg-sharing have included fears that such schemes may exploit women, especially those who are otherwise unable to afford their own treatment; compromise consent; and lead to psychological damage for unsuccessful donors who will be traumatised by thoughts of the recipient conceiving their genetic children (3-7).

We were interested in finding out as much as possible, both in terms of the objective facts that can inform such debates and also about egg-sharers' own reflections on these questions. Our questionnaire covered a broad range of topics - from motivations to anxieties, emotional reactions to retrospective reflections - and was completed by 86 women (48 donors and 38 recipients) who took part in egg-sharing between 2007 and 2009.

Overall, the data paint a reassuring portrait of egg-sharing. They suggest that some commonly held, and even intuitive, concerns about the practice may be unfounded, and highlight the feelings of empathy and reciprocity between donors and recipients. As well as engaging directly with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in their recent review of donation policies, the findings are reported in various articles being published this year.

Engaging directly with some of the questions surrounding consent and exploitation, our first article provides demographic details of egg-sharers and reports on their circumstances and retrospective reflections (1). We found that, contrary to some expectation, there were few demographic differences between egg-share donors and recipients: women in both groups came from similar ethnic, religious and educational backgrounds, and had similar kinds of occupations, although recipients were on average 11 years older than donors (44 years old versus 33 years old).

However, there were interesting differences regarding their relationship circumstances: although the majority of donors and recipients were in heterosexual relationships at the time of egg-sharing, there were significant minorities of donors in same-sex relationships (27 percent) and single recipients (34 percent). These findings are not particularly surprising considering the changing landscape of assisted reproductive technologies, but serve as a reminder that the tacit assumption of an IVF patient as a heterosexual woman suffering fertility problems is outdated.

In addition to the demographic data, we sought egg-sharers' own opinions on issues of consent and exploitation. Reassuringly, 88 percent of donors and 76 percent of recipients expressed disagreement or strong disagreement with the statement 'Egg-sharing is exploitative'. The large majority of egg-sharers were glad to have taken part in egg-sharing (87 percent), would still do so if they could make the decision again with the benefit of hindsight (83 percent), and believe that egg-sharing is a good response to donor egg shortages (94 percent).

In the second article (2) we focus more on the emotional and relational aspects of egg-sharing. In particular we ask how donors and recipients feel about each other, about each other's treatment outcome and any resultant offspring. Our findings revealed trends towards openness and disclosure among donors and recipients, sentiments of goodwill between the two groups, and a strong sense of reciprocity and empathy.

When women were asked to describe their feelings towards their egg-sharing partner, the two most common responses were curiosity (71 percent of donors, 78 percent of recipients) and the sentiment 'I hoped her treatment would be successful' (79 percent and 86 percent, respectively). Interestingly, unsuccessful egg-share donors were no different to successful donors with regard to how often they thought about any children the recipient may have conceived; on opinions as to whether those children should be told about the circumstances of their conception; or on feelings about potential future contact. Thus, concerns about the psychological harm to donors whose own treatment ends unsuccessfully were not borne out by our data.

In a third article currently under review, we discuss donors' motivations and concerns in depth, highlighting the multiple considerations of egg-sharers, and the feelings of empathy and reciprocity between donors and recipients. No doubt, it will prove interesting to return to some of these questions in time, in particular to find out more about the opinions and experiences of the children conceived through egg-sharing as they reach maturity. However, in the meantime, the findings should serve to ease many of the ethical and psychological concerns about egg-sharing, and to inform clinical practice and broader policy discussions about egg donation.

Currently, egg-sharing accounts for around 60 percent of donated eggs in the UK, but a severe egg shortage remains. It is possible that with greater information provision and awareness, egg-sharing schemes can further assuage the demand for donor eggs in the UK, in a way that is beneficial for both donors and recipients.


08 May 2017 - by Professor Adam Balen 
Last week the Daily Mail published an undercover investigation into certain aspects of IVF practice in the UK. Whilst this has highlighted some issues, unfortunately the meaning of published statistics has been misinterpreted and certain aspects of the investigation have been given far more weight than is just. Rather than serving the public good, this has the potential to leave vulnerable patients scared and confused.
23 March 2015 - by Professor Susan Golombok 
The spat between Dolce & Gabbana and Elton John – apart from raising the somewhat baffling question of what exactly are 'chemical' babies? – highlights the more pertinent question of what are the consequences of IVF, surrogacy and other forms of assisted reproduction for parents and children...
13 August 2012 - by Gisela Lockie 
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that 'Having your baby through egg donation' could happily serve as an egg donation bible. It successfully brings together all the practical, physiological, psychological, social and ethical aspects of this particular form of family building....
15 May 2012 - by Dr Jackie Leach Scully 
We know very little about what 'ordinary' lay members of faith groups - those who are not scientists, philosophers or religious leaders - think about the acceptability of new reproductive and genetic technologies. A team of researchers from Newcastle and Durham Universities is currently carrying out research exploring some of these issues and would like your help...
30 April 2012 - by Dr Berenice Golding 
An illuminating insight into the experiences of those who have used IVF, Brigid Moss' 'IVF: An emotional companion' is both informative and easy-to-read. A combination of case studies, personal reflections and expert opinions from clinicians, academics, alternative therapists and counsellors support the issues discussed. Because of its accessible format, the book would be of interest to those considering IVF or indeed those further along in their treatment...


Ageing genes identified in twin study

23 April 2012

By Dr Victoria Burchell

Appeared in BioNews 653

Chemical alterations in a group of genes affect how we age, scientists have discovered. These changes switch genes on or off in response to diet or environmental factors throughout our lives. Researchers found that four genes that are epigenetically switched off in later life may have a bearing on how well we age.

Epigenetic changes have previously been connected to the ageing process, but exactly how and when these changes occur remains unclear. This study, published in PLoS Genetics, identified 490 epigenetic changes that increased with age, but as co-author Dr Jordana Bell from King's College London, explained, 'four seemed to impact the rate of healthy ageing and potential longevity'.

Changes to these four genes were linked to differences in cholesterol levels and lung function, and researchers think they will be useful as potential markers of ageing.

Initially, the team identified the epigenetic changes in the DNA of 172 identical twins aged 32 to 80. However, analysis of a set of 44 younger twins, aged 22 to 61, revealed that several alterations can also occur in young adults. Epigenetic changes usually begin with a single trigger, and this work suggests that a proportion of these alterations may be triggered early in life.

Pairs of identical twins were used to distinguish genetically inherited traits and those caused by environmental factors.

'This study is the first glimpse of the potential that large twin studies have to find the key genes involved in ageing, how they can be modified by lifestyle and start to develop anti-ageing therapies', said co-author Professor Tim Spector, the director of the Department of Twin Research at King's College London. 'The future will be very exciting for age research'.

Understanding which genes are involved in ageing and how they are regulated may be the key to generating useful anti-ageing drugs. However, the genes identified by this study may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Study co-leader Dr Panos Deloukas, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire, said: 'Our study interrogated only a fraction of sites in the genome that carry such epigenetic changes; these initial findings support the need for a more comprehensive scan of epigenetic variation'.


28 April 2014 - by James Brooks 
Blood tests of a woman who lived to 115 have revealed that when she died the majority of the white blood cells in her body originated from just two stem cells...
16 December 2013 - by Professor John Galloway 
Why do we think we can learn anything useful (other than about twins themselves) from twins? It might be thought that the most important thing about them is their 'twinliness', the one attribute denied to non-twins. Science thinks otherwise...
11 November 2013 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
A gene normally only expressed in embryos has been shown to improve tissue repair in adult mice...
27 August 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
Genetic mutations passed on from mothers may speed up the ageing process and shorten life expectancy, according to a study on mice...
08 April 2013 - by Dr Greg Ball 
Genes that influence the so-called 'biological age' of cells may also influence susceptibility to many age-related diseases...

31 January 2012 - by Victoria Kay 
Thirteen genomic regions appear to influence the age at onset of menopause, according to a genetic study. These regions contain genes involved in DNA repair and immune responses, processes not previously linked to menopause...
31 January 2012 - by Dr Lux Fatimathas 
Unhealthy lifestyles associated with social deprivation may have detrimental effects on DNA before birth, say scientists. A study of adults living in Glasgow shows a correlation between deprivation and DNA methylation - a normal process that occurs mainly during embryonic development and regulates gene activity...
03 October 2011 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
A gene associated with increased lifespan in a number of organisms is now thought to have no effect on longevity after a second look revealed significant flaws in the original studies on which the assumptions were based. The findings will disappoint the manufacturers of many anti-ageing creams that claim to work by activating the gene, but are unlikely to put a stop to research...
20 June 2011 - by Dr Susan Kelly 
The world of genetically predicted futures has recently been joined by a test for what is advertised as ‘biological age’. The test promises to provide information about the rate at which one is ageing – and knowing when you will die would make planning for the future so much easier!...


Big brains and high IQ linked to small gene change

23 April 2012

By Helen Brooks

Appeared in BioNews 653

Two genes that influence brain size, and accordingly intelligence and possibly susceptibility to Alzheimer's disease, have been discovered by scientists.

The first of these, HGMA2, affects the overall size of the brain and links to intelligence. People with a small change in this gene had larger brains and performed slightly better on IQ (intelligence quotient) tests in studies. The other gene, TESC, is linked to the size of a brain region called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and is often smaller in Alzheimer's patients.

DNA - and therefore individual genes - is made up of four chemicals called bases. People whose HMGA2 gene contained a cytosine base (referred to by the letter 'C') a instead of thymine (or 'T') at a specific location, had larger brains. The effect of this variation on intelligence was small but significant - on average a 1.3-point increase in IQ test scores.

'A single letter change leads to a bigger brain', confirmed Professor Paul Thompson, of the University of California, the lead researcher on the study.

Despite the minimal effect on IQ, Professor Thompson says that his team 'found fairly unequivocal proof supporting a genetic link to brain function and intelligence. For the first time, we have watertight evidence of how these genes affect the brain. This supplies us with new leads on how to mediate their impact'.

The researchers also found that people with a genetic variant on the TESC gene had shrinkage in the hippocampus equivalent to almost five years ageing. The brain naturally shrinks with age but this variant sped up the process and this could make people more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer's.

The research is the result of an international collaboration of over 200 scientists to map genes in the brain that increase the risk of developing brain disorders and mental illness. Brain images from over 20,000 healthy people were analysed to measure the size of the whole brain and its memory centres while at the same time screening for variations in the DNA.

'Our individual centres couldn't review enough brain scans to obtain definitive results', Professor Thompson said, 'by sharing our data [...] we created a sample large enough to reveal clear patterns in genetic variation and show how these changes physically alter the brain'.

Discussing the HGMA2 findings, Dr Tom Hartley from the University of York in the UK, who was not involved in the study, told AFP that he was 'a little wary of thinking in terms of a gene for intelligence. There are undoubtedly a lot of things that have to work properly in order to get a good score on an IQ test, if any of these go wrong the score will be worse'.

And Professor Thompson also warned against strict genetic determinism. He told AFP: 'If people wanted to change their genetic destiny they could either increase their exercise or improve their diet and education. Most other ways we know of improving brain function more than outweigh this gene'.

The study is published in Nature Genetics.

Time | 16 April 2012
Nature Genetics | 15 April 2012
Eurekalert! | 15 April 2012
New Genes Linked to Brain Size Identified
Medscape | 15 April 2012
AFP | 16 April 2012


02 March 2015 - by Meghna Kataria 
One of the genes behind the dramatic evolutionary enlargement of the human brain has been identified. By greatly increasing the number of cells in important brain regions, the gene in question might have helped humans develop cognitive abilities unrivalled in the animal kingdom...
31 March 2014 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
Children with a common gene variant and lower thyroid hormone levels are four times more likely to have a low IQ, researchers have discovered...
17 February 2014 - by Chee Hoe Low 
A gene associated with thinner grey matter, which contributes to lower intellectual ability, has been identified by scientists...
21 January 2013 - by George Frodsham 
Some really are born leaders; according to a new study, the likelihood of occupying a leadership role is affected by your genes...
19 November 2012 - by George Frodsham 
Genetic mutations in thousands of genes that govern our intelligence are contributing to a 'dumbing down' of humanity, as claimed in a controversial new theory...

23 January 2012 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
Researchers from Scotland have found around one-quarter of changes in intelligence observed from childhood to old age may be due to our genes. Although the researchers accept the finding is not statistically significant, it is the first to estimate the contribution of genetic variations to cognitive ageing....
15 August 2011 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
Educational toys, brainy baby videos and flash cards – do these things help to develop intelligence? Or are the genes that you inherited from your parents the determining factor? The search for an 'intelligence gene' has intrigued scientists for decades. Now, an international team of scientists have added weight to the argument that intelligence does have a genetic basis, but that it comes from multiple genes working together...
16 March 2009 - by Dr Will Fletcher 
A new type of brain scanner has revealed that inherited genes have a much greater effect on intelligence than was previously thought. The scanner measures how well nerve fibres are encased in protective and insulating fatty myelin, a good covering of which results in faster nerve impulses...
16 December 2008 - by Katy Sinclair 
Researchers at London's Institute of Psychiatry have found that more intelligent men have better quality sperm, suggesting a correlation between intelligence and evolutionary fitness, in a study published in the journal Intelligence. The research team embarked on the study to test the hypothesis that more intelligent people...


Hair hopes raised for bald men in mouse study

23 April 2012

By Dr Greg Ball

Appeared in BioNews 653

Functioning hair follicles have been grown in hairless mice by researchers in Japan, offering hope of a future treatment for baldness and alopecia in humans. The study is the first to report creating viable hair follicles using human cells, according to Nature News.

The hair follicles were created using stem cells taken from mice and balding men, and were grown in the laboratory. The follicles were then injected under the skin of hairless mice and within five weeks new hair growth was seen. Hair follicles bioengineered using adult human stem cells taken from the scalp of a balding man also successfully grew hair, indicating that this technique has potential for application in humans, according to the researchers involved.

Professor Takashi Tsuji, who led the research at the Tokyo University of Science pointed out the potential of the research in future treatment of baldness. He told Reuters: 'We take a small amount of hair [from the patient's scalp] and through bioengineering, multiply or increase the hair follicles. Once we've created enough we will be able to surgically transplant the regenerated hairs'.

The research, published in Nature Communications, reported that the implanted hairs connected well with the surrounding muscles and nerves, and responded normally to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, known to make hair stand up. The hair follicles also displayed normal growth cycles, regenerating new growth after old hairs had fallen out.

By altering the types of cells used to bioengineer the hair follicles, the researchers were able to alter the properties of the hairs, such as pigmentation, suggesting that the technique may also have potential in restoring natural hair colour.

However, any future treatment would need to go through clinical trials and it is likely to be several years before it may become available. 'We would like to start clinical research within three to five years, so that an actual treatment to general patients can start within a decade', another of the researchers, Dr Koh-ei Toyoshima, a project researcher at the Research Institute for Science and Technology, was quoted by IOL SciTech as saying.

The Daily Mail also pointed out that the treatment would not be cheap, with stem cell treatments likely to cost thousands of pounds.


15 May 2017 - by Annabel Slater 
Scientists have shown how a gene and protein cause greying and hair loss in mice...
20 February 2017 - by Emma Laycock 
A new study has found over 280 genes associated with male-pattern baldness...
07 March 2016 - by Helen Robertson 
Research has identified a genetic variant involved in causing grey hair during the ageing process...
02 February 2015 - by Ana Ilic 
Stem cells have been used to induce human hair growth in mice, in a US study. The researchers say their work could represent the first step in creating a cell-based treatment for male pattern baldness, or androgenetic alopecia, which affects almost half of all men by the age of 50...
04 February 2013 - by Michelle Downes 
A DNA test has been developed to see if couples carry the 'ginger gene'...

26 March 2012 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
New treatments for male pattern baldness could be on the way, as scientists identify a protein they believe inhibits growth of hair follicles...
05 September 2011 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
Fat cells may hold the key to triggering hair growth, US researchers have found. They discovered that a layer of fat cells under the skin of mice sends chemical messages to stem cells, instructing them to grow hair...
13 June 2011 - by Mehmet Fidanboylu 
Scientists from China and the USA have identified a genetic region linked to 'werewolf syndrome', a condition that causes excessive hair growth. The condition also known as hyper-trichosis is very rare - fewer than 100 cases have ever been recorded worldwide...
10 January 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Faulty stem cells may cause the onset of male pattern baldness, scientists have found. Professor George Cotsarelis and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia discovered that stem cells are present in the hair follicles of both bald and hairy scalp regions in men with male pattern baldness...


Private sperm donor fathers 82 children using sex as donation method

23 April 2012

By Rosemary Paxman

Appeared in BioNews 653

Ed Houben, a 42-year-old Dutch man has fathered at least 82 children by private sperm donation, mostly by having sex with his clients, news sources report.

Houben, who lives in Maastricht, launched his free service nine years ago after reaching the legal limit for donations to sperm banks in the Netherlands. He spoke with prospective parents and many of them, he told Radio Netherlands Worldwide, said they found IVF in fertility clinics to be 'very impersonal, cold and clinical. They appreciate being able to see who the biological father of their child will be'.

Houben claims an 80 percent success rate from donations. 'From my own experience, statistically, natural insemination is faster', he said.

Of Houben's 82 children, 45 are girls, 35 are boys, while two mothers preferred not to tell him of the sex of their child. His firstborn is now nine years old and the youngest two months old, and ten more children are on the way. Keen to maintain a relationship with his children, Houben organises an annual get-together in Maastricht for them.

Potential clients usually initiate contact with Houben via his website. After a series of email and phone exchanges, and if considers them suitable, he then sets up a meeting in person.

To reach this stage, Houben demands that women show him medical records as well as tests to ensure they are not drug users. He provides similar information together with a semen analysis, detailing his sperm count.

'I can easily imagine that not everyone agrees with everything I do, but so far I've seen happy people and happy children', he told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. 'If you saw them, you wouldn't question what I'm doing. This isn't my job, I don't earn anything from doing this - I think it's everyone's duty to do something positive for other people, once in their lives, without expecting anything in return'.

But his generosity may yet have inconvenient consequences. 'If all the mothers decided to sue him for maintenance he would be paying them off for the rest of this life, and the next', an unnamed German family lawyer told the Daily Mail.

Official sperm banks in the Netherlands suffered a decline in donations following the abolition of donor anonymity in 2008, possibly leading more women to seek the services of private donors.

Telegraph | 02 December 2008
Radio Netherlands Worldwide | 20 April 2012
Mail Online | 16 April 2012
Der Spiegel | 13 April 2012


29 August 2017 - by Jennifer Willows 
A man is being investigated in the Netherlands after claims he fathered over 100 children through sperm donation...
06 October 2014 - by Ari Haque 
A university professor who offered private, 'insemination services' has been sentenced to a nine-month suspended sentence for sexually assaulting a woman...
26 August 2014 - by Nishat Hyder 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has revealed that 504 sperm donors in the UK have between them 'fathered' more than 6,200 children....
13 January 2014 - by Ari Haque 
A couple who used artificial insemination services at a Utah fertility clinic have found out that their daughter, Ashley, is in fact the genetic daughter of a former clinic worker...
07 May 2013 - by Ari Haque 
A man who claims to have fathered 49 children as a private sperm donor has been arrested on suspicion of sexual assault...

16 April 2012 - by Cait McDonagh 
A British scientist who ran a fertility clinic in London from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, used his own sperm and may have fathered hundreds of children, it has been claimed...
12 December 2011 - by Dr Nadeem Shaikh 
A man in the United States is reportedly being investigated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after offering his sperm for donation. Trent Arsenault, a 36 year-old computer security expert from California, has set up a website offering his sperm without charge to anyone who wishes to use it to have a baby....
31 October 2011 - by Andrew Proven Donor 
A shortfall in donated sperm, we are told, has pushed potential recipients onto websites where private sperm donors hawk their reproductive wares. If only the officially sanctioned sperm banks were well stocked, the thinking goes, women would not have to venture into that murky world. But is that correct? What if sperm donation outside the official channels actually carried certain advantages over the clinic system...
17 October 2011 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
Increasing numbers of women under the age of 25 are turning to sperm donors online, an investigation by the Sunday Times has shown. Many of these women have stable jobs and good support networks, and see no reason to wait before starting a family...


'Landmark' study could change future of breast cancer

23 April 2012

By Dr Linda Wijlaars

Appeared in BioNews 653

Breast cancer can be reclassified into ten separate 'diseases' based on its genetic characteristics, according to scientists. Analysis of the DNA and RNA from almost 2,000 tumours identified ten genetically different subtypes of breast cancer with different survival outcomes. The information could be used to better predict the outcomes of the disease, as well as offer tailored treatment to patients.

'Our results will pave the way for doctors in the future to diagnose the type of breast cancer a woman has, the types of drugs that will work, and those that won't, in a much more precise way than is currently possible', said Professor Carlos Caldas, senior group leader at Cancer Research UK's Cambridge Research Institute.

To date, breast cancer has been classified either by looking at the cells it originates from, or what treatments it might respond to (by testing for oestrogen and progesterone receptors, for example).

'Essentially we've moved from knowing what a breast tumour looks like under a microscope to pinpointing its molecular anatomy - and eventually we'll know which drugs it will respond to', Professor Caldas added.

The team used tissue samples from women diagnosed with breast cancer between five and ten years ago. The samples came from tumour banks in the UK and Canada, and their age meant researchers knew what happened to the women after their tumours had been removed.

They mapped three types of genetic mutations in the tumours: copy number variants, which happen when a cell divides and accidentally copies a piece of DNA more than once; SNPs, in which one single letter of DNA has changed; and gene-expression data, which measures RNA to gauge the activity of particular genes.

This allowed the team to divide a subset of 997 tumours into ten groups of genetically similar breast cancers. They then repeated this on a separate group of 995 tumours to confirm their initial results.

'The size of this study is unprecedented and provides insights into the disease such as the role of immune response, which will stimulate other avenues of research', said Professor Samuel Aparicio, co-lead author of the study, based at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver.

The study has resulted in a comprehensive map of breast cancer genes, some of which were already known (such as BRCA2, an important gene in heritable breast cancer). But it has also discovered several completely new genes that had not been associated with breast cancer before. These genes provide potential targets for novel breast cancer treatments.


18 March 2013 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
A blood test is being developed that could help doctors monitor how breast cancer tumours respond to therapy...
01 October 2012 - by Dr Zara Mahmoud 
Scientists have found molecular similarities between a subtype of breast cancer and a hard-to-treat form of ovarian cancer...
10 September 2012 - by Daryl Ramai 
Women carrying mutations in their BRCA genes may be more susceptible to breast cancer if exposed to diagnostic chest X-rays before the age of 30, say scientists...
09 July 2012 - by Ruth Saunders 
Two novel gene variants linked to breast size may also also influence the risk of breast cancer, according to a study carried out by US genetics company 23andMe....
21 May 2012 - by Dr Rebecca Hill 
The genetic landscape of breast cancer is much more complicated than previously hoped, according to the authors of two analyses of multiple tumour genomes...

26 March 2012 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A genetic test could be used to spare breast cancer patients from having to undergo postoperative chemotherapy...
27 February 2012 - by Luciana Strait 
A new genetic mutation linked to a greater risk of developing breast cancer has been shown to interact with the well-known breast cancer-causing gene BRCA1...
31 January 2012 - by Maria Botcharova 
Two breast cancer drugs, Avastin and Sutent, may inadvertently aid cancer growth, a study in mice suggests. The drugs, designed to reduce the blood supply to tumours, were found to encourage cancer stem cell growth, potentially fuelling the spread of the cancer...
05 December 2011 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Two gene rearrangements associated with prostate and lung cancer could also be behind five to seven percent of all breast cancers, according to US scientists...
28 November 2011 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
An initiative has been launched to collect genetic data from NHS cancer patients in the hope of developing new, personalised treatments....


Six kinds of synthetic DNA created

23 April 2012

By Ana Pallesen

Appeared in BioNews 653

Six new kinds of artificial genetic material have been created by scientists. These XNAs, or xeno-nucleic acids, have similar life-building properties to naturally-occurring DNA.

The work done by researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, is the latest important contribution to the field of synthetic biology where the building blocks of life are built in the lab almost from scratch.

Dr Philipp Holliger, a senior author on the study, published in the journal Science, said that the research showed 'that both heredity - information storage and propagation - and evolution, which are really two hallmarks of life, can be reproduced and implemented in alternative polymers other than DNA and RNA'.

XNA is comprised of the same four nucleic acids that DNA uses for coding proteins, but the structural frame has been made using different sugars. The research showed that the XNAs could form a double helix with the DNA and were more stable than the naturally-occurring genetic material.

The team made a polymerase, a kind of enzyme, which could convert DNA into XNA and XNA back into DNA, this demonstrates heredity. This involved mutating and screening natural DNA polymerases until one could read the XNA code. Selective evolution was demonstrated by an increase in the rate of XNA binding to the correct target over eight generational cycles.

Professor Eric Kool of Stanford University, California, who was not involved in the study, told The Scientist that 'chemists had been working for 20 years to find new backbones for DNA and the feeling always was that it would be interesting and quite possible that some of them might be replicated one day. The hard part was finding the enzymes that could do it'.

In an article accompanying the paper, Professor Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute in the USA said that the research 'heralds the era of synthetic genetics, with implications for exobiology [life elsewhere in the Universe], biotechnology, and understanding of life itself'.

The critical implication for exobiology is that any number of structures may be used as alternatives for DNA and RNA. As Dr Holliger told Science, 'there is no overwhelming functional imperative for genetic systems or biology to be based on these two nucleic acids'.

But the study also opens avenues for biotechnology and drug design. Gene therapy uses natural components that can be broken down by enzymes before the genes can be delivered within the cell. XNA does not degrade as readily as DNA and RNA. As Professor Joyce told The Scientist: 'These things are bullet-proof'.

In his article accompanying the paper, Professor Joyce pointed out that as the researchers had used a DNA intermediary to enable the XNA to replicate, their work did not represent a full synthetic genetics platform.

Guardian | 19 April 2012
BBC News | 19 April 2012
National Geographic | 19 April 2012
The Scientist | 19 April 2012
Science | 20 April 2012


04 December 2017 - by Dr James Heather 
Two extra letters have been added to the genetic code in bacteria, bringing the number of 'letters' up to six...
22 May 2017 - by Marcia Costa 
A new method combining stem cell and gene therapy with ultrasound and microbubbles has demonstrated an efficient way to heal severe bone fractures...
24 November 2014 - by Jenny Sharpe 
E.coli have been engineered to record information from their environment by storing it in their DNA, much like a computer's hard drive...
12 May 2014 - by Siobhan Chan 
Bacteria with two extra synthetic DNA bases in their genome have been created in the lab for the first time...
31 March 2014 - by Rhys Baker 
The world's first fully-functional synthetic yeast chromosome has been created in an international seven-year effort...

02 April 2012 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
Synthetic biology, which uses genetic engineering to build new genomes and organisms, has come under attack in a report published by Friends of the Earth and supported by over 100 other 'public interest' groups...
18 April 2011 - by Professor Michael Moran 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a consultation on the ethical issues raised by emerging biotechnologies. Following discussions about the ethical issues raised by synthetic biology, nanotechnology, stem cell research, genomics and other fields besides, the Council realised that these issues could be profitably examined together...
21 June 2010 - by Nishat Hyder 
According to the most extensive public survey yet the British public are at ease with the idea of synthetic biology - but only if it is responsibly regulated....
01 June 2010 - by Professor Marilyn Monk 
Craig Venter and colleagues recently published their work on a synthesised life form. Once again scientists are charged with playing God and the associated hype and scaremongering promise cures and treatments for all sorts of human and planetary ailments, threaten a future of unknown dangers from genetically manipulated life forms, and demand a re-analysis of the meaning of life and God....
24 May 2010 - by Dr Gabrielle Samuel 
As an ex-genetic researcher I was incredibly excited to hear in last week's news that researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute, US, have successfully constructed the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell....


Clinic for freezing ovarian tissue planned in the UK

23 April 2012

By Dr Marianne Kennedy

Appeared in BioNews 653

Women may soon be given the option of banking their ovarian tissue if a new clinic to offer the procedure opens in the UK. The technique allows women to freeze ovarian tissue containing eggs to use at a later date and could assist cancer patients and other women who hope to have children later in life.

The procedure involves removing part of an ovary, which is then stored in liquid nitrogen for possible future use. Researchers say when the ovarian tissue is thawed and re-grafted onto the patient's ovary, it could start producing eggs within a few months.

The procedure is currently only available in a few countries, including the United States, Denmark, and Belgium, and according to the Daily Mail just 19 babies have been born following use of the technique so far. Most of the women who have received the treatment have been cancer patients hoping to preserve their ovarian tissue in case it is damaged by chemotherapy.

A recent case report, published in the journal Reproductive Biomedicine Online, studying three patients in Europe and the USA who had undergone ovarian transplantation concluded it was a 'valid method of fertility preservation' and encouraged use of the technique in both clinical settings and to 'expand the reproductive and endocrine lifespan of women'. All three women maintained ovarian function for more than seven years. In total eight babies were born after the three women had a graft each.

'The majority of children derived from ovary tissue transplantation have been born following natural conception. This result strengthens the fact that transplantation to the remaining post-menopausal ovary provides a suitable environment to support follicular development and enable conception without assistance', stated the report, co-authored by Professor Claus Yding Andersen at the University of Copenhagen and other researchers in Denmark.

In addition to these three cases, the study reports the success of transplantation (multiple times in some cases) in all other women in the study centres' programmes.

The procedure to remove, store and re-implant the tissue could cost as much as £16,000, reports the Daily Mail, compared to around £5,000 for egg freezing and £4,000 for a cycle of IVF.

Dr Gedis Grudzinskas, a consultant in infertility and gynaecology, is planning to open a clinic in central London offering the procedure within the next six months. 'This technology is so much more efficient than we thought it would be. If a woman is having cancer treatment there are few options. She can freeze her eggs but the quality of this technology varies. Women in their late 20s might consider freezing their eggs until they meet Mr Right', he said.

Dr Grudzinskas is currently awaiting licence approval by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority, reports the Daily Mail.

However, there are concerns expressed by some doctors who predict that having ovarian tissue removed early in life could impair a woman's chance of having a baby. Dr Gillian Lockwood of Midland Fertility Services, said: 'In the case of cancer patients who've got nothing to lose it has great potential. But for social reasons I don't believe it should be recommended. It could cause scarring or damage to the pelvis that could make it difficult to conceive naturally'.


12 September 2016 - by Dr Rachel Brown 
Following the increase in 'social' egg freezing, the ten-year time limit on the storage of human eggs should be removed, according to a leading academic at the London School of Economics....
12 October 2015 - by Dr Rachel Brown 
A Danish study has reported that ovarian tissue transplants appear to be safe and can restore fertility in women who have undergone treatment for cancer, with around one in three procedures in young women leading to live births....
10 August 2015 - by Dr Mary Yarwood 
The ban on single women freezing their eggs in China has been heavily criticised on social media after a Chinese actress revealed that she had travelled to the USA in 2013 to have her eggs cryopreserved...
09 March 2015 - by Dr Rachel Brown 
I arrived with some bemusement at this one-hour debate, 'Does egg-freezing enable women to "have it all"', to Beyoncé playing out loudly to an excited lecture theatre...
20 October 2014 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Apple and Facebook have acknowledged that they are offering their employees in the USA egg cryopreservation services for non-medical reasons in a move that has divided public opinion...

16 April 2012 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a new strategy to increase awareness of egg and sperm donation and to improve the care of donors. It aims to address perceived obstacles to donor recruitment aired during its consultation on gamete donation last year....
16 May 2011 - by Ayesha Ahmad 
A fertility clinic in Amsterdam has announced it is to offer egg freezing techniques on social grounds despite professional bodies recommending that the procedure be investigated further....
17 November 2008 - by Adam Fletcher 
A 39-year old woman has become the first to give birth following a whole ovary transplant. Susanne Butscher received an intact ovary from her fertile twin sister last year, during a landmark operation carried out by Dr Sherman Silber of the Infertility Centre of St Louis...
06 October 2008 - by Dr John Parsons 
Nataly Atalla's uncritical advertorial 'freeze and share: an evolution of egg sharing' in BioNews 476 (week 15/9/2008 - 21/9/2008) did not address a number of important points. I would have expected some comment on the success rate of the vitrification technique in their hands. She cites 100,000...


Maternity rights for women using surrogate mothers raised in Parliament

23 April 2012

By Dr Lux Fatimathas

Appeared in BioNews 653

Former shadow health secretary Mr John Healey has called for mothers of children conceived using a surrogate to be given equal maternity pay, leave and rights as other mothers. Currently mothers who use surrogates are entitled to 13 weeks unpaid leave, in contrast to mothers who adopt or conceive themselves, who are entitled to 52 weeks leave with 39 weeks maternity pay.

'There are probably about 100 children born in this country each year by surrogate mums. The number is growing, society is changing and the law needs to catch up', said Healey, MP for Wentworth and Dearne. 'Maternity rights are there to help mothers and their newly born babies through the earliest months of the child's life, when time together is most needed'.

Healey raised this disparity in maternity rights in the House of Commons, following the case of his local constituent Mrs Jane Kassim, who recently had twin girls through surrogacy. Kassim, who works as a teaching assistant in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, was informed that she would not be entitled to standard maternity leave and pay as she had used a surrogate. Furthermore, she would require parental rights to be transferred over from the surrogate after the birth, before she would be entitled to 13 weeks unpaid leave.

'Surely there must be a good case for Britain, like some states in the USA to have a system of pre-birth orders. But the first and most important step is to secure basic maternity rights so that mothers like Jane who have their children born through surrogates have the same rights as any other mothers who give birth themselves or indeed who adopt children', said Healey.

The 'legal loophole' highlighted by Healey was put forth in a Ten Minute Rule Bill - a means by which new legislation can be introduced to Parliament. This bill was unopposed and has therefore been listed for a second reading where it will be given further consideration. A spokesman for Rotherham Borough Council said: 'Clearly we would welcome any changes to legislation which would benefit families and children'.

Equal rights bid for surrogate mums
Press Association | 19 April 2012
Express | 19 April 2012
Telegraph | 19 April 2012
Daily Mirror | 19 April 2012
Natalie Gamble Associates (blog) | 17 April 2012


30 September 2013 - by Dr Louisa Petchey 
Uncertainty in EU law over the issue of surrogacy and the right to paid maternity leave deepened this week after expert advisors to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) gave opposing recommendations on separate but similar cases....
10 December 2012 - by Sabreena Mahroof 
'…and naturally you realise you will not be entitled to Maternity leave….'...
26 November 2012 - by Sarah Pritchard 
The right to maternity leave in the UK will be extended to parents of children born through surrogacy, under proposed changes to rules on parental leave recently announced by the Government....

05 March 2012 - by James Brooks 
The Court of Appeal in Rennes, France, has upheld an earlier decision to accord civil status – similar to nationality – to twins carried by a surrogate mother in India for a French couple...
05 March 2012 - by Fiona Duffy 
The long-awaited guidelines for Irish couples who have children born abroad through surrogacy, issued on 21 February, have all but avoided some of the most fundamental legal issues surrounding surrogacy...
09 January 2012 - by Annabel Christie 
A new surrogacy law in South Africa suggests a way to improve those in the UK – by making surrogacy agreements enforceable. In the UK, commissioning parents can only find out after the child is born if they can become the legal parents...
21 November 2011 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
An advisor to the Irish Government on child protection has expressed his 'profound concern' that failing to legislate in the area of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) may result in children's rights being violated....
29 October 2009 - by Nishat Hyder 
Following new UK government guidelines on surrogacy published last month aimed at improving the rights of surrogacy patients, Ministers are now facing a new legal challenge calling for further changes in the law....


Book Review: Epigenetics - Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution

23 April 2012

By Ruth Pidsley

Appeared in BioNews 653

Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution

Edited by Professor Benedikt Hallgrímsson and Professor Brian Hall

Published by University of California Press

ISBN-10: 0520267095, ISBN-13: 978-0520267091

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution' edited by Professor Benedikt Hallgrímsson and Professor Brian Hall

Epigenetics has become something of a hot topic in recent years. Not just among molecular biologists such as myself, but also in the wider scientific community and popular media.

Nowadays, the term epigenetics is used to describe processes that occur 'literally on top of the DNA', but originally the word had a much broader use.

This is the starting point for the book 'Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution', edited by Professors Benedikt Hallgrímsson and Brian Hall. It brings together a range of experts to consider the different approaches used to study epigenetic phenomena.

Professors Hallgrímsson and Hall begin by defining epigenetics as 'the properties of the pathways and processes that link the genotype and phenotype'. This seemed like quite a broad interpretation, so I was surprised to learn that it is consistent with the original use of the word by Conrad Waddington, who coined the term 'epigenotype' in the 1950s.

To illustrate the scope and diversity of epigenetic processes, the editors give two examples. The first is that, during development, interactions between two different cell populations can lead to the formation of a third kind of cell; the second is that the interaction between muscle activity and bone can determine that bone's shape.

Such examples fall outside the typical domain of contemporary epigenetics research, which focuses on molecular signals controlling the expression of a gene, such as DNA methylation and chromatin modifications.

The book provides an unusually wide breadth of perspectives on epigenetics, each part being written by a different author, discussed in terms of their personal area of research.

The introduction of the term and its concept in the first part provides the historical and philosophical foundations for the book. This is then followed by a discussion of the various ways epigenetics has been studied in the academic fields of development and evolution, with case studies of epigenetic processes in vertebrate organ development making up the third section. The final part of the book takes a close look at the role of epigenetics in evolution and disease.

The technical language and highly specialised content in the individual chapters requires a firm grounding in biology, which could overwhelm lay readers.

Overall, though, the book achieves the editors' principal aims of reminding a new generation of molecular and systems biologists about the historical roots and scope of epigenetics.

As such, the book is likely to be of interest to a wide range of academics and graduate students in the biological sciences, and not just those specialising in molecular epigenetics.

Buy Epigenetics: Linking Genotype and Phenotype in Development and Evolution from Amazon UK.



21 December 2015 - by Isobel Steer 
If you'd like to learn more about epigenetics, or just watch a masterly science presenter at work, look to 2015 Francis Crick Prize winner Professor Rob Klose...
14 January 2013 - by James Lush 
'Beautiful science' was how Dr Nessa Carey described epigenetics at the Biochemical Society Annual Symposium Public Lecture, held at the University of Leeds...
17 September 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
Significant improvements could be made to public health by building upon the findings of epigenetic research, according to a leading expert on epigenetics and child health...
10 September 2012 - by Dr Daniel Grimes 
In her new book, 'The Epigenetics Revolution', Nessa Carey argues that we are in the midst of the next great upheaval in biological thinking...

16 April 2012 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Epigenetics is a complex subject, so explaining it in just two minutes is a big ask. But that's what the short video clip, 'Health explained: epigenetics', on the BBC website attempts to do. Aimed at a general audience, the video succeeds in giving us a very basic introduction, but doesn't manage to capture what is new and exciting about this field of research...
20 December 2010 - by Dr Carolina Gemma and Dr Vardhman Rakyan 
In recent years, significant progress has been made in identifying some of the genetic factors that underlie common complex diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cancer. This has been possible due to the genome-wide association study (GWAS) approach that involves comparing genetic variants in large numbers of individuals that have the disease versus those that do not...
13 December 2010 - by Professor Sandy Raeburn 
This Frontiers programme challenged three genetic dogmas. The presenter quoted a recent Observer headline on epigenetics: 'Why everything we were told about evolution was wrong!'...
12 March 2010 - by Sally Marlow 
Mental health is a huge global concern, with one in four people experiencing some form of mental health problem at some point in their lives. Psychiatric disorders are sometimes difficult to study, as they are diagnosed on the basis of observed behaviours...
15 February 2010 - by Charlie McDermott 
The International Human Epigenome Consortium (IHEC), launched in Paris last week, plans to map 1,000 reference epigenomes within a decade...


Book Review: Lab Coats in Hollywood - Science, Scientists and Cinema

19 April 2012

By Daniel Malynn

Appeared in BioNews 653

Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema

By Dr David Kirby

Published by MIT Press

ISBN-10: 0262014785, ISBN-13: 978-0262014786

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema' by Dr David Kirby

How successful are scientists at engaging with filmmakers (be that directors, writers or producers)? This is what, through numerous examples, David Kirby discusses in his book 'Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema'.

It is this notion of 'success' that for me highlights the book's overall message. Science and cinema (and by extension scientists and filmmakers) speak hugely different languages and have vastly different concerns when it comes to the portrayal of science on screen.

Kirby's belief is that filmmakers will only use science if it helps them reach their end goal.

First, it creates a sense of realism: inclusion of accurate science adds authenticity to the film, or it might meet the public view of textbook science. But it's not just authenticity in relation to the action on screen they want, but the stamp of approval that having a big name scientist or organisation gives to a film – take the number of NASA logos in big budget blockbusters.

Second, filmmakers maintain scientific accuracy if it develops the narrative of the film in a positive way. Kirby cites as an example, Star Trek (2009), where astronomer Carolyn Porco gives advice on where the Enterprise could hide from the Romulans when entering the solar system. Her suggestion to come out of warp in the cloud atmosphere of Saturn's moon, Titan, was included in the film as it not only added to the narrative, it was also a visually striking moment. However, in her role as consultant, this was the only material contribution Porco made to the film. Indeed, there are many other examples where filmmakers simply ignore advice, as it conflicts with other factors.

So, if being a science consultant isn't particularly influential, why do so many get involved? Aside from the allure of Hollywood, there are three main reasons.

First and foremost, it's funding opportunities: a big budget film can highlight the need for more research in that area. Clear examples in the book are 'The Day after Tomorrow', 'Deep Impact', 'Twister' and 'Dante's Peak', all of which led to increased funding in their respective fields.

The second is to inform. Cinema and television are possibly the world's most powerful information-providers, and the chance for scientists to directly inform millions of people must be appealing. Kirby's opening example – and a personal favourite - involves the show 'Life Goes On' (1989 - 1993) and its HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) positive character Jesse McKenna. Both Wayne Grody (at UCLA's School of Medicine) and Rod Gracia (HIV and AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome consultant) were called on to discuss this storyline.

Gracia argued that many AIDS patients at the time were trying non traditional medicines, and that Jesse should forgo standard treatment (anti-retroviral pills) and look at acupuncture or a macrobiotic diet. While this storyline would not have been unrealistic, Grody knew that there could be real world ramifications if Jesse came off his medications. It was nothing to do with science realism; it was the potential impact on the HIV community, and the risk of losing volunteers for clinical trials of (at that time) new 'cocktail therapies'.

Finally, films can influence people's perceptions of disputed science or change scientific thinking. Kirby explains how the Jurassic Park films promoted Jack Horner's theory of bird-dinosaurs. Up until that point, dinosaurs were firmly thought of as slow and cumbersome lizards. Presenting Horner's ideas as 'factual' meant the public accepted it as the truth.

Overall, Kirby's book is an excellent history of science in film. It discusses all aspects of science, and sets out a clear argument, backed-up by diligent and in-depth research.

The chapter detailing the lengths John Underkoffler went to in scientifically justifying the Hulk transformation through genetic engineering is well worth reading. However I did find it quite repetitive and felt my interest start to fade as I waded through endless 'Deep Impact' examples.

'Lab coats in Hollywood' is full of extremely helpful tips for scientists working with filmmakers, and would make perfect reading material for all those who sit in the cinema saying 'That would never happen'.

Buy Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists and Cinema from Amazon UK.



20 February 2012 - by Ayesha Jadoon 
With clear and concise information, the 'Genes and Life' DVD serves its purpose as an introduction to the field of genetics. However, it quickly became quite repetitive and lacked the entertainment value that would have taken it beyond merely an educational DVD...
22 August 2011 - by Daniel Malynn 
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is this summer's big blockbuster and is directed by Rupert Wyatt. The film is a prequel to the other Planet of the Apes films and charts how the apes came to revolt. The basic storyline is thus; Dr Will Rodman (James Franco) is testing a gene therapy called ALZ-112 on chimps to find a cure for degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's...
23 May 2011 - by Dr Amy Strange 
Science's journey from fiction into reality is an adventurous ride. So I began to read 'Human Cloning in the Media', a book about how cloning is making this trip, with high expectations. The book examines 'the making of technoscience, the making (and policing) of an international scientific community and the making of publics who can appropriately engage with this technoscience'...
04 October 2010 - by Ruth Saunders 
The Switch and The Back-Up Plan are films about donor insemination and the single woman. Two New York women opt to use a donor's sperm after their dreams of settling down with 'Mr Right' and starting a family don't go to plan. Both films treat the topic of donor insemination as rom-com territory rather than the makings of a gritty drama...



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