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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 www.bionews.org.uk 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.

 

 

CONTENTS

Comment

News Digest

Reviews


 



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

19 April 2012

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.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]

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.... [Read More]
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.... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]



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.

 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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.... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
30 April 2012 - by 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... [Read More]



Ageing genes identified in twin study

23 April 2012

By 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'.

 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
11 November 2013 - by Nicola Davis 
A gene normally only expressed in embryos has been shown to improve tissue repair in adult mice... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
08 April 2013 - by Greg Ball 
Genes that influence the so-called 'biological age' of cells may also influence susceptibility to many age-related diseases... [Read More]

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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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!... [Read More]



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.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
13 August 2012 - by Tamara Hirsch 
Scientists have identified a sub-type of stem cell responsible for neuron development within the cerebral cortex associated with higher level brain function... [Read More]

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.... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]



Hair hopes raised for bald men in mouse study

23 April 2012

By 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.

 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

04 February 2013 - by Michelle Downes 
A DNA test has been developed to see if couples carry the 'ginger gene'... [Read More]

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... [Read More]
05 September 2011 - by 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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]



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.

 

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

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
22 October 2012 - by Maria Sheppard 
A man in Queensland, Australia, who acted as a known sperm donor for a woman in what appeared to be a private arrangement, has been awarded shared parental responsibility over a girl he fathered... [Read More]
22 October 2012 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
A celebrity sperm donor service called Fame Daddy that was profiled in news reports in the British media has been revealed as a hoax... [Read More]
01 October 2012 - by Ayesha Ahmad 
The Danish Government is currently reviewing its guidelines on sperm donation policies following the discovery that a donor has passed on a rare genetic condition to at least five children... [Read More]

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... [Read More]
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.... [Read More]
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... [Read More]
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... [Read More]



'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.

 

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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.

 

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

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Clinic for freezing ovarian tissue planned in the UK

23 April 2012

By Marianne Neary

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'.

 

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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'.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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
 

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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 or Amazon USA

'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 or Amazon USA.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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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 or Amazon USA

'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 or Amazon USA.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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