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Issue 917 (11 September 2017)


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.

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News Digest




Costs of IVF in Australia: Downward trends shall continue

11 September 2017

By Professor Alan Trounson and Dr Karin Hammarberg

Alan Trounson is an emeritus professor, and Dr Karin Hammarberg a senior research fellow at Monash University.

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

In Australia, almost four percent of children are born as a result of assisted reproductive technologies (ART). The comparatively high rate of ART use is in part due to costs being covered by the taxpayer-funded health insurance scheme, Medicare. However, IVF clinics can set fees above the Medicare rebate, and this difference becomes an out-of-pocket expense for the patient. This has progressively increased in the last decade and in many clinics, the out-of-pocket cost is now AU $4,000-5,000 for each treatment cycle. Demand has been gradually eroding, and larger established IVF providers are now seeing a decrease in infertile couples enrolling for ART treatment.

As a result, alternative providers that simply charge the rebate fee with minimal out-of-pocket expenses have entered the fertility industry. These 'no-frills' clinics rely on high throughput, have little face-to-face contact with patients, and offer treatments without 'add-on' technologies. Such clinics can be suitable for young couples with uncomplicated infertility. However, when the prospective mother is over 38, more clinical work and more advanced technology is needed to find developmentally sound eggs and embryos. This is also the case for couples with more complex infertility, such as caused by polycystic ovaries, genetic abnormalities or reduced egg or sperm supply. Solving these problems is expensive and time-consuming, and generally beyond the capabilities of the rebate-only clinics.

Nevertheless, this new low-cost model has put a downward pressure on prices that will see established clinics inevitably attempt to regain lost market share (see BioNews 915). Overall, this should benefit patients. Younger couples with uncomplicated infertility can access affordable treatment in low-cost clinics, and older couples and those with more complex infertility are likely to see prices drop in the established high-technology clinics.

In addition to lower ART treatment cost, there are other ways to reduce the cost of infertility to the individual and society. A group of experts have argued that unnecessary ART treatment and expense could be avoided if IVF clinics had a more prognosis-based approach, based on real life data that predicts natural and ART conception. In their view, some couples with so-called unexplained infertility are offered ART despite no evidence that this increases their chance of having a baby, but does expose them to inherent risks and costs.

It is also argued that technology over-servicing happens frequently. For example, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is now performed in almost 70 percent of IVF treatment cycles globally, in spite of evidence that it is effective only if the male partner has very poor semen quality.  ICSI adds to the cost of treatment and there may be even some evidence of increased adverse birth outcomes. Furthermore, some clinics offer other unnecessary 'add-ons' that have little evidence for benefit but increase costs, and there are now calls for more scrutiny to ensure that the safety and efficacy of an adjunct treatment is established before it is recommended to patients. 

Knowing what the chance is of having a baby and thus being able to estimate 'value-for-money' is of fundamental interest to patients. But, understanding information about success rates can be difficult because it depends on how it is presented. One clinic can look much more successful than another because of the way 'success' is reported. For example, if 100 women start a treatment cycle, 75 have an embryo transfer, 25 have a clinical pregnancy and 20 give birth, the 'pregnancy per embryo transfer' figure is 33 percent, but the 'live birth per started treatment cycle' figure is only 20 percent. In 2017, an audit of clinic websites in the UK concluded that they were used as advertisements to patients and that the risk of selective reporting therefore was considerable. The authors suggested that binding guidelines are needed to 'ensure consistent and informative reporting'.

Finally, a number of potentially modifiable factors reduce the chance of having a baby with ART. Of these, the woman's age is the most significant. Among women in Australia and New Zealand who used their own eggs in 2014, the live delivery rate per initiated stimulated cycle (excluding the chance offered by any frozen embryos) was almost 32 percent for women aged less than 30 years but only 6.2 percent for those aged 40-44 years. Chance is also reduced if one or both partners smoke or are obese. Fertility health promotion that increases awareness of these factors could potentially reduce the number of treatment cycles needed to achieve a live birth.

Downward trends in costs in IVF benefit patients, and will continue as low-cost providers enter the fertility industry. However, whether in low-cost and high-technology clinical settings, every couple's infertility profile must be matched with the right treatment. 



03 November 2017 - by Georgia Everett 
Australian bioethicists have expressed concern that the country's assisted reproductive technology (ART) industry has become increasingly motivated by profit, causing a conflict of interest...
09 October 2017 - by Georgia Everett 
For the first time couples in Ireland will be eligible for financial aid for fertility treatments, after the Government signed off new proposals last week...

29 August 2017 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
Treatment costs for IVF may be coming down in Australia as a result of a price war between fertility clinics...
08 May 2017 - by Dr Jane Williams 
Australia's key body for medical research released a new set of ethical guidelines last month on the use of Assisted Reproduction Technologies with a welcome and unusual surprise: a section on conflicts of interest...


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Gene therapy for cancer halted after patient death

11 September 2017

By Ebtehal Moussa

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Two trials assessing gene therapy for blood cancer have been put on hold by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), following a patient fatality.

The therapy, known as 'off-the-shelf' CAR-T immunotherapy, used genetically modified immune system T cells to target cancer, yet unlike other trials the cells were taken from a healthy donor instead of the patient. It was hoped this therapy would prove easier and less expensive to produce.

'Allogeneic production of CAR-T cells is cost-effective and results in remarkable off-the-shelf product, capable of being distributed worldwide', the manufacturer Cellectis had suggested in a video presentation.

The early-stage trials of the therapy, called UCART123, aimed to treat two types of blood cancer, blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm (BPDCN) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), in patients who did not respond to typical treatment or relapsed.

The 78-year old male patient who died was first to be treated in the BPDCN study. He experienced side effects in the form of lung infection and moderate cytokine release syndrome (CRS) at day five, severe CRS and blood vessel leakage on day eight, and death on day nine. CRS results from the excessive release of immune components called cytokines from targeted cancer cells and immune system cells.

The first patient in the AML study, a 58-year old female patient, received the same treatment at the same dose, and experienced similar side effects. Although intensive care treatment resolved the side effects, the AML study has also been put on hold until the development of appropriate safety measures.

Two days following the reported patient fatality, the FDA made a recommendation to lower the immunotherapy and supporting drug dosage.

'Cellectis is working closely with the investigators and the FDA in order to resume the trials with an amended protocol including a lowered dosing of UCART123,' the company said in a statement.

Cellectis's shares fell by 23 percent following the FDA’s notice. It is not the first to report patient death through CAR-T therapy trials. In March 2017, the pharmaceutical company Juno Therapeutics reported five patient deaths in response to personalised CAR-T therapy targeting acute myeloid leukaemia, a type of blood cancer. Similarly, Kite Pharma's trial on aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma has reported one patient death.

However last week, the FDA approved the first personalised CAR-T cell therapy for leukaemia (see BioNews 916).


19 October 2017 - by Jennifer Willows 
The US Food and Drug Administration have approved the world’s second gene therapy to target blood cancer...

04 September 2017 - by Meetal Solanki 
The world's first cancer treatment which uses a patient's own genetically modified immune cells has been approved...
17 July 2017 - by Dr Loredana Guglielmi 
A drug for leukaemia that genetically alters patients' own cells to fight cancer, has cleared a critical hurdle in gaining commercial approval...
12 June 2017 - by Ebtehal Moussa 
Two trials of a new gene therapy have successfully treated blood cancers in patients who were unresponsive to standard treatment...
09 November 2015 - by Lone Hørlyck 
An experimental cell-based treatment using gene editing, previously only tested on mice, has successfully reversed advanced leukaemia in a one-year-old girl...


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NHS IVF no longer available in county that pioneered it

11 September 2017

By Dr Mary Yarwood

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG)  has removed funding for free IVF treatment, despite being the county where the procedure was first developed 40 years ago.

It is the third CCG in the UK to remove NHS funding for IVF, following Essex and Croydon. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CCG estimates that the move will save £700,000 a year.

Dr Mike Macnamee is CEO of Bourn Hall Fertility Clinic in Cambridge, where the world's first IVF techniques were developed (see Call to remember 'forgotten' IVF pioneer in this week's BioNews). He told Cambridge News: 'It is very sad that the CCG has decided to cut all funding for IVF as we know this will be devastating to many people. Infertility is a recognised disease and impacts the quality of life for those affected and their wider families.'

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends that three courses of NHS IVF treatment should be offered to women under the age of 40.

Another concern shared by Dr Macnamee is that reductions in NHS provision would lead to more patients seeking treatment overseas, where treatment is cheaper. Differences in regulation may also make multiple births more likely.

'People think "twins, that's a bonus",' he said. 'But it isn't really, because usually twins or triplets are born early and may have other complications.'

'IVF is more expensive in the UK than other countries because of strict regulations ensuring very high standards of expertise and care. Removing the funding will encourage more people to go overseas, increasing the chance of multiple births…Just three sets of triplets will wipe out any saving,' said Dr Macnamee.

Dr Gary Howsam, chair of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough CCG, told the BBC that it was financially necessary to suspend NHS IVF funding and that the move was 'one of the hardest decisions we've had to take'.

'I think there's a recognition that the NHS funding situation is desperate in our region,' he said. 'The CCG has finite resources to fund a whole range of health services and treatments. We need to save £46.5 million this financial year, and so we have had to review all areas of our spending and to make some difficult decisions.'


11 December 2017 - by Hane Maung 
Infertility affects one in seven couples in the United Kingdom. Currently in England, state-funded treatment for infertility is available under the NHS, although availability varies across different local clinical commissioning groups. Depending on the kind of infertility, treatment may include medical interventions, surgical procedures, and assisted reproductive technologies...
09 October 2017 - by Georgia Everett 
For the first time couples in Ireland will be eligible for financial aid for fertility treatments, after the Government signed off new proposals last week...

14 August 2017 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
Funding cuts by the UK's National Health Service has meant that 13 areas in England have restricted or halted IVF treatment since the start of 2017, according to Fertility Network UK...
07 August 2017 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Clinical Commissioning Groups in the Bristol region are the first to propose restricting NHS-funded IVF treatment to women aged 30 to 35 years...
27 March 2017 - by Rikita Patel 
New patients referred for infertility treatment by their doctors will now have access to three cycles of IVF on the NHS in Scotland...
20 March 2017 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Croydon has become the first Clinical Commissioning Group in London to cut funding for all IVF treatment, other than in 'exceptional circumstances'...


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Craig Venter says genome sequencing can predict faces

11 September 2017

By Ruth Retassie

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

It is possible to predict someone's face using DNA (genetic) sequencing and machine learning, according to Dr Craig Venter.

Dr Venter and colleagues at the company he co-founded, Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) in San Diego, used DNA to match eight out of ten faces from an ethnically-diverse group of photographs.

'We set out to do this study to prove that your genome codes for everything that makes you, you,' said Dr Venter.

He also raised privacy issues, adding: 'We are also concerned that the public and the research community at large are not adequately focused on the need for better safeguards and policies for individual privacy in the genomics era and are urging more analysis, better technical solutions, and continued discussion.'

However, the results were met with immediate scepticism from scientists on social media.

'Craig Venter cannot predict faces,' said Dr Yaniv Erlich, chief scientific officer of MyHeritage, a consumer DNA testing company.

The researchers, led by Dr Christoph Lippert at HLI, sequenced the genomes of 1601 people. They also captured high resolution 3D images of the participants' faces, and recorded each person's age, height, weight, and eye and skin colour.

They developed a software algorithm to use the DNA sequence data to build predicted images which they could then compare with photographs. For eight out of ten people, there was a match. But this fell to five out of ten faces when the test was limited to a single race.

'The face prediction is just predicting the average face for your race. You will always say, "Wow, that kind of looks like me",' said Dr Jason Piper, a data engineer at Apple who formerly worked at HLI. 'Because everyone looks close to the average of their race, everyone looks like their prediction.'

Critics said that because the team used a person's race and sex to predict average human faces rather than specific ones, the approach is not especially new. 

Dr Venter's team acknowledges that their algorithm needs more genomic data in order to become more precise in its predictions.

'Calling it predicting from the genome is what's wrong,' said Dr Mark Shriver, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, Pennsylvania, and a researcher in genes-to-face predictions. He told MIT Technology Review: 'The main message is way overstated. They just didn’t have enough people to find the genes that distinguish people. This is not the paper that is going to convince people that this is going to affect privacy or help forensics.'

The study was published in PNAS.


24 March 2014 - by Chris Hardy 
A new technique allows scientists to make guesses about what a person's face looks like, by examining just 20 genes in their DNA...
10 March 2014 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Dr Craig Venter, founder of Celera Genomics and one of the first to sequence the human genome, has teamed up with stem cell pioneer Dr Robert Hariri and X Prize Foundation founder, Dr Peter Diamandi...
28 October 2013 - by Dr Naqash Raja 
Regions of the genome that do not code for proteins have been found to shape facial features, research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USA, has shown...
21 January 2013 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
A US team of researchers has shown it is possible to link whole genome sequence data to a specific person, using only publicly available information....


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Six genes linked to premature birth

11 September 2017

By Georgia Everett

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Six key genes have been identified in the largest study of premature birth to date.

The findings, yielded from a genome-wide association study of around 50,000 women, could potentially lead to predictive testing for premature birth and early preventative intervention.

'Previous research has suggested that about 30 to 40 percent of the risk for preterm birth is linked to genetic factors,' said co-lead author Dr Louis Muglia, co-director of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Centre. 'This new study is the first to provide robust information as to what some of those genetic factors actually are.'

Premature birth is the leading cause of death in children under five, yet research is complicated by the interactions between the fetal and maternal genomes, which determine the likelihood of such an event occurring.

The researchers used data obtained through 23andMe to compare the genetics of mothers and infants against birth data. They found the most significantly associated genes were in the maternal genotype. These included EEFSEC, a gene involved in cellular functions involving the mineral selenium, found in meat, greens and some nuts. The authors suggested there could be a correlation between reduced selenium levels in the mother and an increased risk of premature birth, especially as Malawi, the country with the highest prevalence of selenium deficiency, also has the highest occurrence of premature birth worldwide.

Another highly correlated gene, WNT4 is vital to prepare the uterine lining for pregnancy by augmenting oestrogen signalling. This finding suggests uterine cells could be targeted for further investigation into premature birth.

Other genes linked to premature birth had roles involving immune development, blood pressure control and uteroplacental circulation.

The research, however, only analysed the genomes of women from European descent, so the findings cannot be directly extrapolated to reflect the genetics of other ethnicities, but they provide insight of what type of genes play a role in premature birth.

'These are exciting findings that could play a key role in reducing newborn deaths and giving every child the chance to grow up smart and strong,' said Trevor Mundel, President of the Global Health Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the funders of the study.

'Not only did the study reveal several genes linked to pre-term birth, it also identified a simple, low-cost solution – selenium supplements for expectant mothers – that, if confirmed, could save thousands of lives. It's a great example of the power of public-private partnership,' Mundel added.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

March of Dimes | 06 September 2017
The New England Journal of Medicine | 06 September 2017
CBS News | 07 September 2017
NBC News | 06 September 2017


04 December 2017 - by Martha Henriques 
A total of 49 genes have been found to influence earlobe shape and attachment, new research has found...
20 November 2017 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Women who had fertility treatments were a third less likely to deliver a baby if they had low levels of vitamin D, compared with women who sufficient vitamin D, a review study has found...

02 May 2017 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
Researchers have kept premature lambs alive for several weeks using a 'biobag' designed to mimic the conditions of a womb...
19 May 2014 - by Dr Molly Godfrey 
Scientists have developed a prototype blood test to predict whether pregnant women who give signs of early labour will in fact give birth prematurely...
26 September 2011 - by Dr Caroline Hirst 
Tissue engineers from the UK have, for the first time, developed an artificial fetal membrane from human stem cells to be used as a ‘repair patch' to prevent premature births...
18 April 2011 - by Mehmet Fidanboylu 
Researchers from Finland and the USA have identified a gene linked to an increased risk of premature birth. Previous research has looked at the mechanisms for synchronising fetal maturation and birth in animals...


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Financial stress and circadian gene linked to migraine

11 September 2017

By Dr Barbara Kramarz

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

People with specific variants of a body clock gene are more likely than others to develop migraines under financial hardship.

'This work does not show what causes migraine – there is no single cause – but it does show that both stress and genetics have an effect,' said Daniel Baksa at Semmelweis University, Hungary, and first author of the new study.

Scientists from Hungary and the UK studied DNA from 2349 participants from Budapest and Manchester. They looked for two common SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) of the circadian gene CLOCK which, among others, is involved in the regulation of sleep and the major stress hormone, cortisol.

The research found there was no direct effect between the SNPs, present in around a third of the population, and migraines only. However, the odds of developing migraines increased by about 20 percent with these particular gene variants when stress was included in the analysis. Participants filled in a questionnaire on their financial situations to assess this.

Co-author Professor Xenia Gonda of Semmelweis University told Newsweek that 'financial stress was used as a proxy' for chronic stress - as opposed to  something that might cause acute stress, like a work deadline.

Professor Andreas Reif at the University Hospital, Frankfurt, who was not involved in the study, said: 'This is a really interesting study on the interaction of genetics with stress in migraine. The studied gene is involved in the circadian system, which has previously been shown to be implicated in mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, which intriguingly is co-morbid with migraine.'

He added that the study might give clues as to how such disease might be linked. He noted: 'But even beyond this, the study demonstrates how an environmental risk factor exerts its effect only in the presence of a given genetic risk factor. This has not been done to a great extent in migraine, making this study an exciting new lead.'

This work was presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology conference in Paris, France.

Medical News Today | 04 September 2017
EurekAlert | 02 September 2017
The Indian Express | 04 September 2017
Newsweek | 02 September 2017


28 June 2013 - by Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi 
Five genetic regions not previously associated with migraine have been linked to the condition, according to an international group of researchers...
07 May 2013 - by Cristy Gelling 
Genetic mutations that cause an inherited sleep disorder also appear to be linked to migraine, scientists have found...
14 January 2013 - by Dr Lux Fatimathas 
Scientists find those with epilepsy who have a strong family history of the disorder are also more likely to have migraines...
20 June 2011 - by Chris Chatterton 
Scientists have carried out a large genome-wide association study (GWAS) looking into SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) potentially associated with migraine and have discovered three new genes that may be associated with the condition...


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Drug protects mice against cancer treatment infertility

11 September 2017

By Dr Katie Howe

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

An existing drug has been shown to protect eggs from radiation and chemotherapy damage in mice.

The scientists involved in the study hope this treatment could one day be used to prevent women who undergo cancer treatments from becoming infertile. Currently, egg freezing is their only option.

'That is a serious dilemma and emotional issue,' explained lead researcher Professor John Schimenti of Cornell University, 'when you layer a cancer diagnosis on top of the prospect of having permanent life-altering effects as a result of chemotherapy, and must face the urgent decision of delaying treatment to freeze oocytes at the risk of one's own life.'

Women are born with a lifetime supply of immature eggs but this pool gradually diminishes over time, meaning that older women often have difficulty conceiving. Cancer treatments can also damage oocytes leaving many cancer survivors infertile. Investigation into methods to preserve fertility after chemotherapy is therefore a topic of intense research.

In the study, the scientists treated female mice with a drug that blocks the function of the CHK2 protein. CHK2 normally acts as a quality control checkpoint, and triggers the destruction of any eggs with damaged genetic material. This process prevents harmful mutations from being passed on to offspring.

After being given the CHK2-blocking drug, the mice were treated with radiation, which causes damage to DNA in immature eggs. The researchers found that the oocytes were not destroyed, and when transferred into surrogate mothers could give rise to healthy pups.

Professor John Schimenti noted one major concern: 'Even though these irradiated oocytes led to the birth of healthy mouse pups, it's conceivable that they harbour mutations that will become manifested in a generation or two because we are circumventing an evolutionarily important mechanism of genetic quality control. This needs to be investigated by genome sequencing.'

As blocking the CHK2 quality control mechanism enabled eggs to avoid destruction and to repair damaged DNA over time, this raises the possibility of using a similar method to preserve fertility in humans. 

'While humans and mice have different physiologies, and there is much work to be done to determine safe and effective dosages for people, it is clear that we have the proof of principle for this approach,' said Professor Schimenti.

The study was published in the journal Genetics.

Medical News Today | 04 September 2017
Drug Target Review | 04 September 2017
International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics | 06 September 2017
Genetics | 01 August 2017
Cornell University | 01 September 2017


10 July 2017 - by Mikey Lebrett 
Female cancer survivors are 38 per cent less likely to become pregnant compared with women in the general population, according to a study presented at the annual European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Geneva...
23 November 2015 - by Dr Edgar Mocanu 
A recent study in mice raised the possibility of restoring ovarian function after chemotherapy. But before creating hype, the medical community has a duty to deliver evidence from human studies...
26 October 2015 - by Dr Nicoletta Charolidi 
A stem-cell therapy in mice shows promise for reversing infertility in women who have received cancer treatment...
29 July 2013 - by Dr James Heather 
Despite treatment for childhood cancer causing an increased risk of infertility, most women still manage to conceive, research has shown...


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Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.


Deficient diet linked to schizophrenia symptoms in mice

11 September 2017

By Annabel Slater

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Mice deprived of two essential fatty acids during pregnancy gave birth to pups with schizophrenia-like symptoms, shows a new study.

The pups showed altered expression of genes involved in brain development. The scientists were also able to reverse these epigenetic changes and reduce symptoms using a drug.

'Our work is the first in the field of psychiatry to identify a molecular [mechanism] that links nutritional environment to disease risk,' said first author Dr Motoko Maekawa of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Tokyo, Japan.

Schizophrenia is a highly complex disorder that arises from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.  Previous studies have linked two essential fatty acids, omega-3 (DHA) and omega-6 (AA), to schizophrenia. These fatty acids, which can only be obtained from food, are concentrated in the brain and affect its development.

The scientists discovered pregnant mice deprived of DHA and AA produced offspring with schizophrenia-like symptoms, including depression, lower motivation, and impaired memory. When they examined the prefrontal cortex of the schizophrenia-like adult mice, they found reduced expression of genes which code for nuclear receptors, a class of protein important for triggering protein-building in cells. The scientists also discovered reduced expression in genes linked to the GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid [γ-Aminobutyric acid]) neurotransmitter, a chemical involved in brain signalling, and in genes linked to oligodendrocyte cells, which help facilitate neuron communication.

When they gave the mice a drug to upregulate the nuclear receptor genes, the oligodendrocyte and GABA genes were also upregulated, and some behaviours were reduced.

'This was evidence that drugs acting on nuclear receptors can be a new therapy for schizophrenia,' said Dr Maekawa.

The researchers also examined hair follicles from two groups of schizophrenia patients, and found reduced expression of the same nuclear receptor genes.

'The next step is to test the effectiveness of drugs that target these nuclear receptors in patients with schizophrenia, and to investigate how nuclear receptors regulate the function of oligodendrocytes and GABAergic neurons to prevent the development of schizophrenic pathophysiology,' said Dr Maekawa.

The study was published in Translational Psychiatry.


02 October 2017 - by Charlott Repschlager 
A gene associated with schizophrenia influences a critical stage of early brain development in mice...

24 October 2016 - by Isobel Steer 
Scientists using a new 3D chromosome-mapping technique have uncovered a genetic connection between schizophrenia and early fetal brain development ...
10 October 2016 - by Dr Ashley Cartwright 
A person's 'epigenetic age' can predict how long they will live, according to a study of over 13,000 individuals...
21 March 2016 - by Sarah Gregory 
A rare mutation in a single gene increases the risk of schizophrenia by 35 times, a new study has found...
01 September 2015 - by Lubna Ahmed 
A recent study by researchers in Canada has found that people who are genetically susceptible to low vitamin-D levels are at a higher risk of multiple sclerosis...
01 September 2015 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Genetic expression adjustments linked to stress and trauma may be inherited by children, a study has claimed. The findings may support the view that the effects of life experiences on gene expression could be passed on to the next generation...


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Call to remember 'forgotten' IVF pioneer Jean Purdy

11 September 2017

By Julianna Photopoulos

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Jean Purdy, the world's first embryologist, should be celebrated as IVF's third pioneer, says the British Fertility Society (BFS).

It has called for her work to be recognised on the 40th anniversary of IVF next year, alongside that of her colleagues Sir Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe.

'Sadly, it is only Steptoe and Edwards that most people remember. So, next year, when we celebrate 40 years since the birth of the first IVF baby, let us ensure it is Steptoe, Edwards and Purdy who are celebrated for their extraordinary achievements,' said the BFS in a statement.

Purdy started work as a nurse and was recruited by Sir Robert Edwards at the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge in 1968 - ten years before the birth of world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown. They worked together, along with gynaecologist Dr Patrick Steptoe, until Purdy's premature death from melanoma in 1985. In 1980, she helped to launch fertility services at Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge, and was its technical director.

'The more I learn about Jean, the more I am in awe of her achievements. She entered the cutting-edge world of fertility science at 23 years old and carved out a vital role for herself,' wrote Professor Roger Gosden from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in a commentary about Purdy published last week in the journal Human Fertility.

But Purdy's work has largely went unrecognised. Even in the announcement of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which went to Sir Edwards for the development of IVF, her name was not mentioned while Dr Steptoe's was.

Nevertheless, both Sir Edwards and Dr Steptoe acknowledged her role in IVF clinical research and care. She was credited as an author on 26 academic publications between 1970 and 1985.

'It was no longer just Patrick and me. We had become a threesome…[she was] the patient, indomitable helper without whom none of our work would have been possible…,' Sir Edwards wrote in his autobiography, published in 1989.

In 1998, at a plenary lecture celebrating the 20th anniversary of IVF in Marrakesh, Sir Edwards again reminded everyone of Purdy's achievements. He said: 'There were three original pioneers in IVF and not just two.'

Purdy developed tasks and processes that are now a standard part of IVF treatments. She was also the first person to recognise and describe the formation of the early human blastocyst. Under her tenure, 370 babies were conceived using assisted reproduction.

Human Fertility | 07 September 2017
British Fertility Society | 08 September 2017


03 August 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
Dr Howard W. Jones, a pioneer of IVF in the United States, has died at the age of 104...


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Book Review: Stem Cell Dialogues - A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry into Medical Frontiers

11 September 2017

By Isobel Steer

Page URL: Appeared in BioNews 917

Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry into Medical Frontiers

By Professor Sheldon Krimsky

Published by Columbia University Press

ISBN-10: 0231167482, ISBN-13: 978-0231167482

Buy this book from Amazon UK

Is using and destroying a human embryo for medical research ethical? This question is constantly considered in our newspapers, courtrooms and research labs. You almost certainly have an opinion on it. But it opens the door to many other questions you may not have considered; such as, is it better to create an animal-human hybrid embryo, and destroy that instead? What is personhood, and when does it start? Is stem cell research 'eggsploiting' women? Should clinical trials be more regulated, or less?

As stem cell research marches inexorably on, these questions demand urgent answers. 'Stem Cell Dialogues' will undoubtedly help you form opinions on these difficult questions and more. Philosophy, politics, theology, and of course a large serving of science are all spliced into this fascinating chimera of a book.

Stem cell therapy has caused a flurry of excitement and investment in recent decades. But like gene therapy before, so far it has not delivered the promised medical revolution to the masses. Yet with huge potential for regenerative medicine, many stem cell therapies are still in development. Apart from umbilical cord-derived stem cells, the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any stem cell-based products. However, some unethical clinics are using stem cells dangerously, as various horrifying stories show (see BioNews 898). Another key ethical issue questions the use of human embryos to obtain stem cells or carry out research, as covered in the PET 2016 annual conference.

The author, Professor Sheldon Krimsky, is a trained physicist and philosopher and currently the Lenore Stern professor of humanities and social science at Tufts University, Boston. He is also a fellow of the Hastings Centre, a bioethics research institution, and his previous books include titles such as 'Genetic Alchemy', 'Biotechnics and Society', and 'Science in the Private Interest'. His background makes the focus of this book primarily American, but there is enough European law to satisfy a UK reader.

Taking inspiration from Plato, Professor Krimsky has constructed a series of twenty-five dramatic Socratic dialogues with titles such as 'The President's stem cells' and 'My embryo is auctioned on the Internet'. It is an ambitious yet effective way to summarise important modern debates. But the dialogue style is less effective when it comes to believable character development. For example, every non-scientist character in the book, from patient to priest, nonetheless seems to know even more about cells than a third-year Biology student! The central protagonist is Dr Franklin, an ethicist and scientist with a tragic backstory, who appears in every dialogue. She is meant to be our moral guide yet she rarely expresses an opinion. When she finally unleashed some personality during a debate on feminism, I actually cheered aloud.

Still, although frustrating, Dr Franklin's moral ambiguity is understandable. Many of the issues in this book have no easy answers, and the reader must ultimately come to her or his own well-informed conclusion. Indeed, Professor Krimsky states his interest is in the 'middle ground of controversy' – the grey zone.

The content is wide ranging and comprehensive. I particularly enjoyed the reconstructions of real-life court cases, such as United States v. Regenerative Sciences LLC (see BioNews 667), and the discussions of companies such as Geron. It received FDA approval in 2009 for the first clinical trial to treat human spinal cord injuries with embryo-derived stem cells, but controversially terminated the trial in 2011 (see BioNews 634) when it became too expensive. Professor Krimsky also does not shy from including murkier moments from the history of stem-cell research, such as the notorious STAP, stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cell research scandal (see BioNews 757).

I began reading this book with definite views on the ethics of stem cell research. From my days working in cancer research laboratories, I was well aware of the unique medical value of (adult) human cell samples, as well as the importance of patient safety in clinical trials. However, I was flabbergasted to find some of my views completely changed while I read this book. Who was this person suddenly cheering for deregulated clinical trials? For example, in the dialogue 'How my cells became drugs', I found myself agreeing with Regenerative Sciences:

'If the FDA is given regulatory authority over autologous stem cell treatments, the costs of such procedures will skyrocket… the costs will become out of bounds for all but the very rich.'

However, the dialogue 'Stem cell tourism' eventually pushed me back towards my original standpoint, arguing:

'We do not want stem cell therapy to follow the path of human gene therapy – test on humans before animals. Stem cell treatments must have a rationale in the peer-reviewed literature, preclinical evidence of efficacy and safety, and animal data. Experiments without these safeguards should be banned.'

My previously black-and-white opinions now contain a lot more grey, and you too will find your views challenged and changed by this book. Plato's dialogues made complex philosophy accessible and gripping, and this approach also works for science. These dilemmas are not abstract and theoretical, they are real, current, and will eventually affect every reader in some way. In particular, this book will be of interest to many couples undergoing IVF who may be considering what is the most ethical thing to do with their unused embryos. I can thoroughly recommend this enlightening book to everyone with an interest in ethical science.

Buy Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry into Medical Frontiers from Amazon UK.



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Published by the Progress Educational Trust


Public Conference
8 December 2017

Speakers include

Professor Azim Surani

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge

Sally Cheshire

Professor Guido Pennings

Katherine Littler

Professor Allan Pacey

Dr Sue Avery

Professor Richard Anderson

Dr Elizabeth Garner

Dr Andy Greenfield

Dr Anna Smajdor

Dr Henry Malter

Vivienne Parry

Dr Helen O'Neill

Dr César Palacios-González

Philippa Taylor

Fiona Fox

Sarah Norcross

Sandy Starr


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