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Issue 933 (15 January 2018)

 

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

 


 

Dry January

15 January 2018

By Sarah Norcross

Appeared in BioNews 933

A belated Happy New Year to all our BioNews readers.

Unfortunately, 2018 has not got off to a good start for the Progress Educational Trust (PET). When Sandy, our communications manager, popped in the office on 2 January (while still on annual leave), he found that there had been a substantial leak from the flat above us. To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, enough water had come through our ceiling to leak through our floor into the office below.

Sandy notified the landlord, and an electrician came out and disconnected two of the lights as they were unsafe - the water had come through the light fittings.

Meanwhile, I was away in Liverpool at the Fertility 2018 conference (where PET was exhibiting) until 6 January, trying to do what I could to sort out the situation remotely. Our landlords - always evasive when there is a problem - did nothing until 9 January, when they finally installed a dehumidifier and sent someone to photograph the damage.

On Wednesday 10 January, one of our wonderful trustees - John Parsons - came in and helped me rip up the wet carpet, to allow the floor underneath to dry out quicker. The carpet is beyond saving.

Luckily, the PET team is resilient and resourceful. Sandy did what he could in the office, in horrid conditions, to prevent things being damaged further. Within minutes of me sending out an email asking the Friends of PET for help, we had found Sandy a temporary desk he could work at in someone else's office (such is the generosity of our supporters that he had several offers).

The editors all agreed to work from home, and published last week's BioNews as usual. I'm sure you didn't notice anything different.

Dealing with management agents, landlords, landlords' building contractors and insurance companies has taken up a huge amount of time, and we still have no clear picture of when we will be able to return to PET HQ. Much as I pride myself on being to work anywhere, the smell and feeling of damp, the noise of the dehumidifier and the mould which has already started to grow on the walls and ceiling make it an unhealthy work environment.

So Dry January has taken on a very different meaning in the PET office, even if our predicament hasn't dampened our sense of humour.

But we do need your help. We need to raise funds to cover the time lost, and the expenses we won't be able to recoup from the landlord or the insurance company. We should like to raise £4,000 to cover these, and to make some of the other changes to the office we were planning before the leak occurred.

The best way you can support us is by becoming a Friend of PET as detailed here, and giving us a regular donation.

Or you can help by making a donation via PayPal (click here), by text (text 'PROG23 £10' or any other amount to 70070), or by post (as detailed here).

SOURCES & REFERENCES


 

What next for genome editing? Politics and the public

15 January 2018

By Eleanor Taylor

Appeared in BioNews 933

The ever-expanding limits of human reproduction are creating complex ethical and political challenges. One topic that has generated much contention is the possibility of editing the genome of human embryos. The fourth session of the Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s Annual Conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction' focused on the current status of genome editing both scientifically and politically, and explored how its role may evolve over time.

Dr Andy Greenfield, programme leader in mammalian sexual development at the Medical Research Council's research unit in Harwell, opened the session by imploring audience members to keep calm and 'carry on editing'. His plea was twofold; he primarily wanted to emphasise the importance of performing basic genomic research. Secondly, he aimed to quell the tendency to equate genome editing with dystopian visions of the future.

Dr Greenfield succinctly explained that the development of therapeutic genome editing technologies needs to be underpinned by basic research. We need to understand more than just the correlation between genotype and phenotype: we need to understand how genomes function, in particular, how human genomes function. Dr Greenfield acknowledged that this will be a laborious process but used a quote from Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of The Royal Society, to emphasise the importance of investing in non-applied research: 'Basic science yields fantastic returns on investment, but we cannot predict which investment will pay off, or when.'

Dr Greenfield closed the session by arguing for a distinction between the need for standards of safety and efficacy, and ethical questions that cannot be reduced to satisfying such standards. In some ways, he said, 'the ethics only truly begin when we have a safe and efficacious protocol'.

In the second talk Dr Elizabeth Garner, a functional genomics researcher at Caribou Biosciences, California, examined 'The Can, Can't and Won't for Genome Editing'. Caribou was founded by some of the pioneers of the CRISPR approach to genome editing, and Dr Garner started her talk with an overview of the evolution of genome editing technologies, to help put the relatively recent use of CRISPR into perspective.

The 'can' for genome editing largely concerned the creation of monogenic changes - although, as Dr Garner pointed out, the ability to deliver genome editing platform components to somatic cells or tissues is still an enormous challenge. In contrast, the 'can't' concerned deliberate alteration of polygenic traits, which is at present beyond the scope of this technology. The 'won't' lies in ensuring that genome editing will only be used in a therapeutic capacity.

The final talk of the session, 'How to talk about genome editing: putting CRISPR in its place', was given by PET communications manager Sandy Starr, who explored the importance of language when discussing genome editing in public. Starr created a persuasive argument for the development of a consistent genome editing vocabulary, emphasising that the use of variable and overly complicated jargon can cause public confusion and disengagement.

It is important that individuals who could potentially benefit from therapeutic genome editing, as well as those who care for them medically or socially, are able to understand the treatments that are being developed; we cannot make informed decisions without a robust understanding. PET recently conducted a project with fellow charity Genetic Alliance UK, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to investigate what patients and laypeople think and know about genome editing.

Starr coauthored the resulting report, Basic Understanding of Genome Editing, and drew on the findings during his talk to impart some top tips on how to discuss genome editing with the public:

  • Ensure that the audience knows what a genome is, and repeat this explanation often.

  • Use the term 'genome editing' exclusively; it can encompass both a single base-pair change and the loss of an entire chromosome (if brought about in a deliberate manner).

  • Explaining the potential uses of genome editing should be prioritised over explaining the mechanics of the process.

  • Deprioritise the term 'CRISPR', as genome editing can come in other forms.

Starr neatly drew together key points from the two previous talks to demonstrate that the story of genome editing is still unfolding and a common language is needed that can evolve alongside the technology.

Rather fittingly for a session focusing on public engagement, the post-talk discussion lasted longer than the presentation portion of the session and was expertly guided by the session chair Vivienne Parry, science writer and broadcaster. A number of salient questions were raised regarding the way in which genome editing is discussed. What metaphors can be used when explaining genome editing? Why do we not have an appropriate metaphor available for PGD? Should a distinction be made between genome editing and epigenome editing? Who should be responsible for assigning names to new technologies? Dr Garner responded to the latter question, stating that it is traditionally the scientists that get to name new technologies, but acknowledging that more consideration should perhaps be given to names by the scientific community to promote easier public dialogue.

In addition to a dissection of language, the discussion also strayed towards the moral and ethical issues that genome editing can provoke. Why are we continuing with applied research if we have acknowledged there is still so much basic research that needs to be performed? Will we be able to prevent individuals from overstating the capabilities of such technologies and constrain the propagation of false hope? The session also touched upon the problematic issue that TV and radio producers are often only willing to give scientists mere seconds to explain complex ideas, yet withdrawing from discussing such topics in the media can 'create a vacuum where scientists don't engage', leaving the floor open to individuals who could potentially disseminate misleading ideas.

There was also an interesting undercurrent of sociological thought running throughout the discussion. Why is the desire to have genetically-related offspring so deeply ingrained in humans? Is it a biological drive or does it stem from societal conditioning? One audience member cautiously asked whether it would be more efficient to encourage individuals to embrace gamete donation or adoption rather than resort to complicated and invasive genome editing technologies.

Overall, the post-talk discussion managed to successfully showcase the vast array of opinions that the topic of genome editing can elicit and beautifully illustrated why public involvement in the scientific arena is so incredibly important.

PET would like to thank the sponsors of its conference - the Anne McLaren Memorial Trust Fund, the Edwards and Steptoe Research Trust Fund, the ART Institute of Washington, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, the London Women's Clinic and Vitrolife.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

05 February 2018 - by Shaoni Bhattacharya 
A large study of the genomes of over 1.3 million people has found 956 genes implicated in insomnia...
29 January 2018 - by Jamie Rickman 
In 2012, social scientists representing 20 different countries and all five continents gathered to discuss the 'routinisation' and globalisation of selective reproductive technologies in Copenhagen, Denmark...
22 January 2018 - by Dr Cathy Herbrand 
Is sexual reproduction still compatible with Western values? Can germline genome editing ever be considered as medicine? Can we stick to act only on serious disorders? These were some of the provocative and complex questions which were addressed during the last session of the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference...
15 January 2018 - by Dr Danielle Griffiths 
'The Wild East and the Worried West: Pioneers or Outlaws?’ was the third session of the Progress Educational Trust's (PET) Annual Conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction'...

08 January 2018 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
What exactly are SHEEFs and IVGs? How might they shed light on the mysteries of early embryo development, and offer new hope to those affected by infertility? These questions were the focus of the second session at Progress Educational Trust's one-day conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction' in London on 8 December 2017...
18 December 2017 - by Dr Avi Lerner 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s Annual Conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction' discussed some of the most important ethical and scientific questions facing human reproduction. The first session, chaired by Sarah Norcross, the Director of PET, tackled the very fundamentals. What is a sperm? What is an egg? And what is an embryo?...
11 December 2017 - by Isobel Steer 
Scientists in California have used a modified form of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing approach to epigenetically treat diabetes, kidney disease and muscular dystrophy in mice...
20 November 2017 - by Helen Robertson 
For the first time ever, researchers have been able to film, in real-time, the activity of the CRISPR technique on a strand of DNA...
30 October 2017 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
Scientists have developed the genome editing technique known as 'base editing' to turn adenine-thymine base pairs back to guanine-cytosine...


 

The wild east and the worried west: pioneers or outlaws?

15 January 2018

By Dr Danielle Griffiths

School of Law, Politics and Sociology, University of Sussex

Appeared in BioNews 933

'The Wild East and the Worried West: Pioneers or Outlaws?' was the third session of the Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s Annual Conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction'. As the frontiers of human reproduction move forward, the session reflected on the duties of funders, scientists, healthcare professionals and regulators in ensuring responsible progress. This is particularly relevant in the interconnected world of today where certain developments have brought up debates about boundaries being pushed too far in certain countries, whilst being too constrained in others. Pioneers in one context have become outlaws in another. But where and how should a line be drawn for when pioneers become outlaws?

The session was chaired by Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority), and featured three speakers - Dr Sarah Rappaport (policy adviser at the Wellcome Trust), Dr Henry Malter (laboratory director at the Fertility Centre of the Carolinas) and Dr César Palacios-González (research associate at King's College London's Centre of Medical Law and Ethics).

In the first presentation, 'Funding Scientific Frontiers: A Global Perspective', Rappaport spoke about how over the last few years, Wellcome has taken a more global approach to its funding, policy and advocacy work. It funds research in around 70 countries and through that tries to accelerate ideas and seize opportunities. It supports not just scientists, but scientific endeavour and in this wants to be more 'cutting edge' than 'wild west'.

The number one concern for Wellcome in considering its global approach is equity: asking how will there be fair access to the scientific developments we are witnessing. Secondly, in terms of governance, Dr Rappaport raised the issue of the discrepancy between what significant scientific developments are imminent and the timescales of many developments which could be decades off. Too much excitement and attention for the latter may lead to neglect of the former. Finally she discussed Wellcome's obligations for research and the need to focus on global differences. For example, when looking at gene drives: what principles should be underlying research, how does the research work in different contexts, what are the global principles underlying the work?

The second speaker, Dr Malter talked about 'Myths of the Wild West: Outlaws and the New Frontier'. He started off by noting how his work with Dr Jacques Cohen played a role in extending boundaries and in the process he was called a cowboy. He joked that his talk should perhaps be retitled, 'Extending Frontiers from an Outlaw Perspective: A Cautionary Tale'. He went on to assert that those in the 'fertility frontier' have a moral, ethical and scientific mandate to try to help every person who comes through their door. Describing the fertility frontier in 1978 as a barren landscape, Dr Malter explained that while Sir Robert Edwards and his team solved many issues for tubal factor infertility, there remained no good solutions for male factor infertility aside from donor sperm. Only in 1992 did we see Dr Gianpiero Palermo pioneering the ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) procedure. The remaining problem was the barrier of compromised egg quality. Replacing an egg with a donor egg ameliorated this problem yet this donor conception was not the goal for many women.

In 2001, Drs Cohen and Malter sought a way to improve the quality of eggs through a technique called cytoplasmic transfer. This involved the injection of a small amount of cytoplasm from a donor egg directly into the egg of an infertile woman to 'rejuvenate' it. The technique seemed to them to work well, and Dr Malter stated that 17 healthy babies were born to 12 couples. The research was published, but much of the reporting focused on the fact that there was a minor level of donor mitochondrial DNA detectable in the resulting babies. Much reporting, including in the UK press, then described the technique as creating 'three-parent babies' as well as creating fears of the 'slippery slope' and the advent of germline genetic manipulation. Besides the public furore, the researchers came up against the US Food and Drug Administration.

Dr Malter concluded with some questions about the ethics of extending the fertility frontier. Is it ethical to extend the frontier? Who gives permission? What about patient autonomy? In answering the last question, the talk concluded with Dr Malter arguing that we owe patients the courage to make bold decisions. Such courage, tempered by safety and responsibility, does not - or should not - take us automatically into 'outlaw' territory.

The final talk, 'Mexico and Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques: What a Mess' by Dr Palacios-González, focused on the news that broke on 27 September 2016 of the first baby ever born who had been conceived with mitochondrial donation. Unlike the cytoplasmic transfer technique which was used by Drs Cohen and Malter to address infertility, mitochondrial donation techniques - which are used to avoid the transmisson of mitochondrial disease, a very different purpose - seek to replace all of a mother's mitochondria with mitochondria from a donor.

The US team responsible was led by Dr John Zhang, who is on record saying that he and his team chose to work in Mexico because 'there are no rules' there. The narrative setting out what had happened, and where, was far from clear when the news broke. It later transpired that the relevant embryo was created in New York through privately funded research, but the embryo was transferred to the patient in Mexico. Dr Palacios-González and Dr María de Jesús Medina-Arellano have shown that if the embryo had been created in Mexico (as was initially thought to be the case), then Dr Zhang would have broken federal health regulations.

Dr Palacios-González concluded that within this 'mess' certain questions remain unanswered, including which bodies were and were not consulted by Dr Zhang. Certain key facts have still not been made clear, and there remains considerable uncertainty about the legal and ethical issues surrounding this case. Dr Palacios-González argued that if Mexican authorities had not been kept in the loop - as indeed seemed to be the case - then this showed considerable disregard for the medico-political landscape in Mexico, and could lead to adverse developments within that landscape.

The talks generated many questions from the floor. In response to Dr Rappaport's focus on ensuring global equity in the breaking of boundaries in human reproduction, someone questioned whether we are in danger of bifurcating the species with - for example - only wealthy parents benefiting from certain techniques. There was also reflection on the best vocabulary to use when discussing children with donated mitochondria, and whether an HFEA-like sub-agency within the FDA like could alleviate many issues in the USA surrounding the boundaries of research into human reproduction. Overall, the session showed that determining who are the pioneers and who are the outlaws is a complicated process.

PET would like to thank the sponsors of its conference - the Anne McLaren Memorial Trust Fund, the Edwards and Steptoe Research Trust Fund, the ART Institute of Washington, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, the London Women's Clinic and Vitrolife.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

12 February 2018 - by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge 
The problem of fertility preservation for girls and women undergoing cancer treatments has been a subject of research for many decades. The recent study by McLaughlin and colleagues from Professor Evelyn Telfer's lab at the University of Edinburgh, UK, is aimed at finding a solution to this problem, with the claim that they have produced mature human egg cells in the lab for the first time...
29 January 2018 - by Jamie Rickman 
In 2012, social scientists representing 20 different countries and all five continents gathered to discuss the 'routinisation' and globalisation of selective reproductive technologies in Copenhagen, Denmark...
22 January 2018 - by Dr Cathy Herbrand 
Is sexual reproduction still compatible with Western values? Can germline genome editing ever be considered as medicine? Can we stick to act only on serious disorders? These were some of the provocative and complex questions which were addressed during the last session of the Progress Educational Trust's annual conference...

15 January 2018 - by Eleanor Taylor 
The ever-expanding limits of human reproduction are creating complex ethical and political challenges. One topic that has generated much contention is the possibility of editing the genome of human embryos...
08 January 2018 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
What exactly are SHEEFs and IVGs? How might they shed light on the mysteries of early embryo development, and offer new hope to those affected by infertility? These questions were the focus of the second session at Progress Educational Trust's one-day conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction' in London on 8 December 2017...
18 December 2017 - by Dr Avi Lerner 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s Annual Conference 'Crossing Frontiers: Moving the Boundaries of Human Reproduction' discussed some of the most important ethical and scientific questions facing human reproduction. The first session, chaired by Sarah Norcross, the Director of PET, tackled the very fundamentals. What is a sperm? What is an egg? And what is an embryo?...
29 August 2017 - by Dr César Palacios-González 
Almost a year after the first live birth of a baby following a mitochondrial replacement technique procedure, the US Food and Drug Administration has sent a very strongly-worded letter to the scientist and team responsible for the event...


 

Fresh embryos just as good as frozen for women without PCOS

15 January 2018

By Georgia Everett

Appeared in BioNews 933

Using fresh embryos in IVF gives the same chance of a live birth as using frozen embryos for ovulatory women, according to two new studies

Previous work suggested that frozen embryos in IVF were more successful than fresh ones in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) who were 'anovulatory', that is, their bodies did not release an egg every menstrual cycle.

To see if the same was true in women without PCOS who ovulated normally, studies conducted in China and Vietnam, randomly assigned IVF patients to a fresh embryo transfer or a frozen embryo transfer cycle, and then recorded the pregnancy and live birth rates of the groups. The studies are published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Both studies showed similar pregnancy and live birth rates for fresh and frozen embryos, with about one-third of the IVF transfers resulting in a live birth in the Vietnam study, and half resulting in a baby in the China study.

The studies also found no difference in the occurrence of neonatal and obstetric complications between the two groups. Although, frozen cycles were associated with lower rates of OHSS (Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome) (0.6 percent frozen versus 2 percent fresh).

Dr Lan Vuong, lead author of the Vietnamese study, at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy at Ho Chi Minh City, said: 'Frozen embryo techniques are growing in popularity in fertility clinics worldwide. This is one of the reasons why our research is important for fertility clinicians and researchers, and of course couples who are hoping to have a child.'

She also added that the results 'should transform the way [IVF] is practised. After the first fresh embryo transfer, it will be possible to freeze the remaining embryos and transfer them one by one, if necessary, without reducing the chance of pregnancy.'

Professor Ben Mol at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and a co-author on the Vietnamese paper, addressed cost concerns: 'Couples concerned about such unnecessary costs of freezing all embryos do not need to go down that path, and will still have the same live birth success rate.' This statement was supported by Dr Vuong who conducted a cost-effectiveness analysis of the two types of transfers and found that 'freezing embryos and subsequent transfer is not cost-effective over fresh transfer'.

Dr Christos Coutifaris at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the research, told Reuters Health that the findings for PCOS patients should not be applied to ovulatory women.

'Two papers, equally large and done in non-PCOS patients, show that in terms of live birth, which is what we care about, there is no difference…so to apply the rule to everybody that we should freeze your embryos is probably not correct,’ he said.

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

12 February 2018 - by Elizabeth Oliver 
Researchers have grown fully developed human eggs in the laboratory for the first time...
15 January 2018 - by Susan Tranfield 
The entire landscape of human fertility, from puberty to menopause, is the uncharted territory we tread from adolescence to middle age and sometimes beyond. It is a heady mixture of hormones, reproductive functions and barely acknowledged social and emotional narratives played out against our own and familial expectations...

30 August 2016 - by Dr Bruce Shapiro 
Is it better to transfer fresh embryos during IVF or frozen embryos that have been thawed...
15 August 2016 - by Dr Barbara Kramarz 
Women with polycystic ovary syndrome who undergo IVF using frozen embryos are more likely to have successful pregnancies than those using fresh embryos, a study suggests...
22 March 2009 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
British scientists have found that a common gene variant that predisposes carriers to obesity is also linked to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS has long been known to be associated with obesity but the new study is the first to identify a genetic link between the two...
02 July 2003 - by BioNews 
BioNews reporting from ESHRE conference, Madrid: A study presented at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Madrid, Spain, has suggested a future way of harvesting eggs from aborted fetuses. Researchers from Israel and the Netherlands presented the results of a preliminary study...


 

Human immune response may stymie CRISPR genome editing therapies

15 January 2018

By Rikita Patel

Appeared in BioNews 933

The human adaptive immune response against the Cas9 protein – part of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing system – may pose a barrier to new therapies, suggests a new study.

'This was a fully expected observation, since we are all constantly exposed to many microbes,' Professor George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study, told Gizmodo.

Results from the study – published in 'pre-print' form on bioRxiv, and yet to be peer-reviewed – found pre-existing antibodies against Cas9 derived from two common bacterial species in 22 newborns and 12 healthy adults.

Antibodies against Cas9 derived from Staphlococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes, were found in the blood serum of 79 and 65 percent of study participants respectively.

The study authors bring attention to the possible, systemic side effects of CRISPR/Cas9 that should be addressed before tests are carried out on humans. 'Like any new technology, you want to identify potential problems and engineer solutions for them,' Dr Matthew Porteus, study author at Stanford University in California, told STAT. 'This is an issue that should be addressed.'

The study also looked at T-cell response in blood from 13 healthy adults and found that 46 percent of them produced T-cells against Cas9 from Staphlococcus aureus,but not Streptococcus pyogenes.

The presence of Cas9 specific T-cells could lead to 'significant toxicity' say the study authors and other safety risks associated with the technique are still in question (see BioNews 903).

Solutions to overcome barriers to harnessing genome editing therapies have been proposed, including the use of Cas9 proteins from other bacteria, editing cells ex vivo, or even producing new delivery vectors that are invisible to the human defence system.

'New Cas editing enzymes are being described all the time from bacterial species that are not human pathogens (and so there would be no chance to develop the pre-existing antibodies),' Professor Jacob Corn, from University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study, told STAT.

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

05 February 2018 - by Theofanis Michailidis 
As a law graduate with a special interest in medical law and bioethics, I admit having very limited scientific background or knowledge...

02 October 2017 - by Dr Rachel Brown 
A genome editing technique called 'base editing' has been used to correct the mutation causing the inherited blood disorder beta-thalassemia in human embryos...
02 October 2017 - by Rachel Reeves 
New potential drug targets have been identified for cancers associated with KRAS gene mutations, which are thought to drive around 20-30 percent of all human cancers...
03 July 2017 - by Dr Dusko Ilic 
Recent debate over the safety of CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing following a study that suggested it can cause hundreds of unexpected mutations left me puzzled...
05 June 2017 - by Charlotte Spicer 
CRISPR may introduce hundreds of unwanted mutations into the genome, a small study finds...


 

Gut bacteria alter gene expression and potentially cut cancer risk

15 January 2018

By Purvi Shah

Appeared in BioNews 933

New research has shown a connection between the potential role of gut bacteria having an active role in gene expression and in turn reducing the risk of cancer.

Dr Patrick Varga-Weisz at Babraham Institute in Cambridge led a team of scientists and found that a by-product made by bacteria while digesting fruits and vegetables – short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) – in our gut can impact our gene activity. 

The experiments were carried out in mice and human culture cells. The study found that a protein HDAC2 changes gene expression by modifying proteins associated with the DNA through a process called crotonylation. 

Higher levels of HDAC2 have been previously associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer. The researchers added SCFAs directly to cancerous human colon cells in a dish, and found that this inhibited HDAC2. In another experiment, mice on antibiotics were found to have higher levels of HDAC2. 

SCFAs are vital to maintaining normal gut health by providing a major energy source for the cells in the lining of the gut. However, this is the first time that they have been shown to have an important role in cancer risk reduction. 

'SCFAs are a key energy source for cells in the gut but we've also shown they affect crotonylation of the genome,' said study first author Dr Rachel Fellows.

'Our study reveals why this is the case by identifying a new role for HDAC2. This, in turn, has been implicated in cancer and offers an interesting new drug target to be studied further.'

As the gut bacteria community proves to play a key role in many aspects of our health from weight maintenance to identifying a unique microbial fingerprint (see BioNews 802) and now a preventative role in reducing the risk of cancer. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Science Daily | 09 January 2018
 
Medical News Today | 10 January 2018
 
Nature Communications | 09 January 2018
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

04 April 2016 - by Anastassia Bolotkova 
Researchers have found a genetic variant in populations that have favoured vegetarian diets over many generations...
07 March 2016 - by Paul Waldron 
A study in mice has shown that a diet high in fat can stimulate the production of stem cells in the intestine, which might then go on to form tumours...
18 May 2015 - by Matthew Thomas 
The communities of microbes living in and on the human body – known as the microbiome – differ enough between people that researchers can use them to tell one person from another in a population of hundreds...
10 November 2014 - by Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash 
Our genetic make-up influences the type of bacteria that live in our gut, which in turn influences how likely we are to be overweight, a twin study has found...


 

Colorado supreme court to rule on fate of frozen embryos after divorce

15 January 2018

By Theofanis Michailidis

Appeared in BioNews 933

A divorced couple's legal battle over their frozen embryos has reached the Colorado Supreme Court.

Mandy and Drake Rooks had three children together via IVF during their marriage, and have a further six embryos still frozen. The couple separated in 2014, but Mrs Rooks wished to use the remaining embryos to have another child, while Mr Rooks, wanted the embryos to be destroyed. A contract that the couple signed when the embryos were created contained the option to specify the fate of any remaining embryos should the marriage break down, but the couple opted to leave the decision to the courts. 

'The whole battle is if you don't want to have a kid, can you prohibit someone from implanting those eggs against your consent?' said Jim Giese, Mr Rooks' attorney, to ABC.

The initial trial court ruled in favour of Mr Rooks, prioritising his interest not to have more children. The Court of Appeals – applying a balancing test – also ruled in favour of Mr Rooks.

'They weighed whether the mom has more than one kid, whether she is going to be able to have more and whether she can economically afford the kids,' Giese told Denver 7.

However, Katy Donnelly, representing Mrs Rooks, contends that Mr Rooks no longer has a recognised constitutional right over the embryos. Since he consented to the fertilisation, Donnelly argues that the embryos now belong to the gestational parent.

Disputes of this kind are not new in the USA, where the fertility sector is not governed by national legislation or a regulatory body, and so decisions may vary between states. However, the Colorado Supreme Court's decision in this case may have wide-reaching implications as the question it must consider is framed in constitutional terms: does the right to procreate trump the right not to?

'For the first time we will actually get a ruling about what the US constitution means or doesn't mean in this context,' Harvard's Law Professor Glenn Cohen told ABC News.

The constitutional angle introduced by Mrs Rooks' lawyers may be because relying on previous case law would likely be unsuccessful. State courts have tended to rule in favour of women who were cancer survivors or who had no children. Mrs Rooks has three children from the marriage, and although she claimed the embryos were created using her last viable eggs, she has since had a fourth child, whose genetic origins have not been revealed.

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

04 September 2017 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
A Louisiana court has ruled that it has no jurisdiction over the frozen embryo dispute between actor Sofia Vergara and her ex-fiance Nick Loeb, in a move that may end the two-year legal saga between the couple...
12 December 2016 - by Chee Hoe Low 
Star of the US TV show 'Modern Family', Sofia Vergara, is facing a lawsuit in the state of Louisiana that lists her own frozen embryos among the plaintiffs...
23 November 2015 - by Dr Julia Hill 
A San Francisco judge has ruled that the frozen embryos of a divorced couple should be destroyed, despite the protests of the ex-wife...
28 May 2014 - by Patricia Cassidy 
An Illinois county court has granted a woman control over embryos created with her ex-boyfriend's sperm, despite his objection to their use....


 

BRCA gene does not affect survival in those treated for breast cancer

15 January 2018

By Hannah Somers

Appeared in BioNews 933

A new study has found that BRCA gene mutations do not affect the survival rates of breast cancer patients under 40, although women diagnosed with breast cancer under this age have a poorer outlook compared with those diagnosed at an older age.

Lead researcher Professor Diana Eccles at the University of Southampton, UK, said: 'No other study has followed a group of patients from diagnosis over a long period of time to discover if carrying a high-risk inherited BRCA gene alters the likelihood of being cured of breast cancer.' The study was published in The Lancet Oncology.

BRCA genes encode DNA repair molecules in human cells; however mutations in these genes have been linked to an increased risk of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Previous studies have suggested that between 45-90 percent of women with BRCA mutations develop breast cancer during their lifetime, compared with just 12.5 percent of the general UK population.

The study followed 2733 women from at 127 hospitals in the UK, all of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 40. Blood samples were used to identify those carrying BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations (12 percent of participants). Researchers then tracked patient treatment for up to eight years. The majority of patients (89 percent) underwent chemotherapy, while 50 percent underwent mastectomies.

The study found that regardless of the BRCA mutations, survival rates at two, five and 10 years were very similar. Researchers state that this evidence could inform future treatment and help women and doctors make informed decisions regarding next steps. 

Dr Fiona MacNeill, consultant breast surgeon at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust said: 'This study can reassure young women with breast cancer, particularly those with triple negative cancer or who are BRCA carriers that breast conservation with radiotherapy is a safe option in the first decade after diagnosis and double mastectomy is not essential or mandatory at initial treatment. In view of this, younger women with breast cancer can take time to discuss whether radical breast surgery is the right choice for them as part of a longer-term risk reducing strategy.'

While this new evidence is encouraging for those with young-onset cancers, the majority of breast cancers (81 percent) appear in women over the age of 50. The researchers stated that their findings may not translate to older women carrying BRCA mutations and that further work would be necessary within this age range.

Professor Peter Fasching, from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany, said in a commentary accompanying the study: 'This important topic needs more prospective research as preventive surgical measures might have an effect on what might be a very long life after a diagnosis of breast cancer at a young age.'

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Long-term use of ibuprofen may harm male fertility

15 January 2018

By Nina Chohan

Appeared in BioNews 933

Men who regularly take the maximum recommended dose of ibuprofen may be at an increased risk of fertility issues.

A total of 31 men between 18-35 took part in the study, published in PNAS. Men who took 1,200 milligrams of ibuprofen daily - the maximum recommended amount, showed disruption in their testosterone production within 10 days. Men who took half the maximum dose saw their testosterone levels fall within two weeks. 

In this time, the men developed a disorder known as compensated hypogonadism. This condition occurs when the body is forced to increase its levels of testosterone because normal production in the testes has decreased. Testosterone is a hormone which is important for roles including making sperm

The study found that luteinising hormone, which stimulates the production of testosterone, increased as the men ingested ibuprofen, while overall levels of testosterone dropped. Luteinising hormone can act as a temporary testosterone replacement. However, over long periods of time, decreased levels of testosterone can lead to adverse effects on the body and possibly infertility in men. 

Researchers who led the study stated that the compensated hypogonadism in participants was mild and temporary. However, they are concerned that the condition may become permanent in men who are long-term ibuprofen users. 

'Our immediate concern is for the fertility of men who use these drugs for a long time,' said study author Dr David Møbjerg Kristensen, an environmental health scientist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Further studies will need to be conducted to clarify the effect of ibuprofen on men's fertility, said Professor Bill Colledge, a reproductive physiologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who was not involved in the study. A precautionary approach should be taken with respect to men taking ibuprofen, he said. 

'Based on these data, I personally would be very reluctant to take ibuprofen for longer than the 10 days normally indicated on the packet.'

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Book Review: Making Friends with your Fertility

15 January 2018

By Susan Tranfield

Appeared in BioNews 933

Making Friends with Your Fertility

By Sarah Rayner and Tracey Sainsbury

Published by Creative Pumpkin Publishing

ISBN-10: 0995794855, ISBN-13: 978-0995794856

Buy this book from Amazon UK


The entire landscape of human fertility, from puberty to menopause, is the uncharted territory we tread from adolescence to middle age and sometimes beyond. It is a heady mixture of hormones, reproductive functions and barely acknowledged social and emotional narratives played out against our own and familial expectations. It involves asking difficult questions of ourselves and sometimes admitting that the common binary of children and happy families do not necessarily follow. 

This can be a confusing and stressful journey as even well-meaning friends and family can contribute to the difficulties felt by those who go through reproductive issues. For every woman whose path into parenthood is smooth and uneventful, there are several more whose trajectory is tortuous and open to physical and emotional turmoil. Those of us whose experience was turbulent and problematic could only look on in envy as more fortunate friends made it all look so easy. Fertility, or its absence, may not seem so much a friend as a foe, and a debilitating one at that.

Part of author Sarah Rayner's 'Making Friends' series, this manual offers its readers a frank and honest guide to every aspect of reproductive help, ranging from the biological to the social and emotional nuts and bolts of fertility. Rayner and fertility counsellor Tracey Sainsbury bring warmth, humour and above all a wealth of authoritative content that will satisfy readers looking for specific, scientific descriptions of the functions of eggs, sperm and other reproductive paraphernalia as well as those who want to be physically and emotionally prepared for an eventual pregnancy and birth.

Advice on avoiding 'faddy' diets during pregnancy is sensible; there is an unspoken acknowledgement that those seeking fertility treatment can be all too easily persuaded into spending time and cash on treatments that do not, in themselves, improve clinical outcomes. Here though, the writers are sensible and pragmatic, and advise that any therapy that improves well-being, provided it does not make any unfounded claims, can help in the quest for parenthood. The authors' use of anecdote helps to bring the disembodied voices of those who have tried and tested some of these remedies to the reader's attention, like impartial friends generously sharing their experiences.

It is particularly useful to have a wide range of aspects of fertility acknowledged and discussed. On the subject of deciding to stop fertility treatment, for example, the writer is clear-eyed about the financial and emotional implications. She also warns that friends and family are often unable to process this at the same speed as the couple in question. Her extensive experience as a counsellor places great importance on communication with partners, family and friends. She also emphasises that these relationships may sometimes disappoint and flounder, not out of malice but most likely through lack of a clear road-map through uncharted territory.

The text is relaxed and informal, without compromising on the science of reproduction that can become the all-consuming, all-absorbing obsession of those embarking on their journey towards conception. These sections are factual and highly informative, packing in details and diagrams that are easy to follow. It takes the reader through the stages of pregnancy in a way likely to provide reassurance and comfort to those whose confidence has been undermined by years of physical and emotional hurdles. Later in the book, the illustrations are humorous, wistful and charming, complementing the great warmth of this useful and well-written work. 'Making Friends with your Fertility' is a comprehensive manual that will be of great use to women, couples and prospective grandparents too.


Buy Making Friends with your Fertility from Amazon UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

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