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Issue 935 (29 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

 


 

What's a bit of genetic interplay between friends?

29 January 2018

By Professor Marcus Pembrey

Appeared in BioNews 935

The recent demonstration that friends have more of their genetic makeup in common than two people picked at random from their population has been making the headlines (see BioNews 934). The research, published in PNAS was based on data from 5500 American adolescents of European origin participating in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health).

It has been known for a while that spouses share more similarity in their genomes than expected by chance. The Add Health study showed in non-Hispanic whites that genetic similarity between friends is about two-thirds of that found between spouses, but more than strangers. The study also tried to tease out how much was down to unconscious attraction between individuals, and how much was associated with the shared school and social environment. They found classmates were about half as genetically similar as friends, but still significantly more similar than unaffiliated individuals.

However, the reporting of this study has so far largely focused on why your friends share more of your genes and DNA variants than expected. This similarity in genetics may all makes sense given the old proverb, 'birds of a feather flock together'. But there is also another rather spooky side to this study and the whole field of social genetic effects. This is that how you end up involves not just the genes you inherited but also the genes of significant others. The authors end their summary of the significance of their paper by saying: 'We also find evidence of a "social-genetic effect" such that the genetics of a person's friends and school mates influenced their own education, even after accounting for the person's own genetics.'

If you are comfortable with the idea that genes carry information that makes you who you are and what you look like, promoted on respectable educational web sites, then you may be rather disconcerted by these recent findings. After all many people regard their genetic makeup as a key element of their individuality. But now we have a study that concludes that some of your own educational achievement is down to your friends' genes rather than your own.

Hang on a minute, who are we talking about here? What a nonsense, you might be saying. But calm down, this feeling is just an insidious side-effect of the geno-centric climate we are living in. To redress the balance, I am reminded of hearing the diplomat Alexander Downer discuss how one got to understand a country to which one had been posted. 'They feel as they feel because of their own history and experience. People are defined by these experiences.'

We are all defined in part by our history and experiences. It is common to hear people talk of a particular school teacher who was a key influence on their career path or some other aspect of their life. Obviously, there is no direct cross-talk between the teacher's DNA and that of the pupil. Genes have their influence through their expression in terms of dictating which proteins are produced when and in which tissues during development and thereafter, often in response to social or physical environmental factors. Gene expression is moulded through additional epigenetic regulation to eventually influence developmental variation in phenotype. Phenotypes range from some basic physiological response to complex traits like personality.

The Add Health paper does not discuss any of these processes by which a particular genotype might influence other people through its phenotypic expression. The word epigenetics is not mentioned at all. It is only dealing with correlations and rightly points out that their study does not inform the direction of influence between friends or schoolmates. The pupil also contributes to the motivation generated by a particular teacher, but the causal pathways are unclear and probably complex.

A recent study in the journal PLOS Genetics of social genetic effects in mice detected associations between a trait of one mouse and the genetic makeup of its cage mates. It turned out that such social genetic effects explained up to 29 percent of variation in anxiety, wound healing, body weight and immune function, and in several cases contributed more to phenotypic variation than the mouse’s own genes. This phenomenon appears to hold for both in-bred and out-bred strains. Social genetic effects, of course, can play both ways in terms of social cohesion and cultural continuity, but much is likely to be mediated by epigenetics.

The simplest example of a genotype becoming an environmental influence on another person comes from the mother-baby relationship. The maternal genotype also contributes to the early nutritional environment of progeny through its influence on maternal metabolism during pregnancy. This is best exemplified in studies on insulin sensing and fetal growth, through which a common variant of the glucokinase gene alters fasting glucose and birth weight.

Here we know the causal pathway from mother to baby, and also some of the other factors – genetic or otherwise – that might modify the outcome in the baby. But take a step back and imagine just how challenging it will be to understand what is going on between free-living, unrelated friends as they grow up. Yes, it really is going to be complicated!

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

05 February 2018 - by Dr Loredana Guglielmi 
A study led by UK researchers has shown for the first time that human muscles possess a 'memory' of earlier growth...

22 January 2018 - by Elizabeth Oliver 
We are more likely to share genetic similarities with our friends than with strangers because of our social structure, a new study has found...
22 January 2018 - by Ewa Zotow 
The programme starts with a bold statement: 'No other field of science has experienced such an upheaval in the last few years as human evolution.' There is a reason for it: the recent addition of the DNA research to the toolbox of techniques available to evolutionary scientists has led to remarkable findings...
04 December 2017 - by Dr Kristien Hens and Dr Leni Van Goidsenhoven 
Popular scientific publications regularly have articles with headlines suggesting that 'autism is hereditary' or that the 'risk for developing autism' is mostly caused by genetics...
09 May 2016 - by Dr Özge Özkaya 
A study of ancient DNA obtained from prehistoric human remains has revealed details about modern humans before farming began, going back to their arrival in Europe around 45,000 years ago...


 

Hopes and dreams for the new law on assisted human reproduction in Ireland

29 January 2018

By Fiona Duffy

Partner, Patrick F O'Reilly & Co. Solicitors, Dublin

Appeared in BioNews 935

The Minister for Health in Ireland on the 3 October 2017 disclosed a decision by Government to approve the drafting of a bill on assisted human reproduction (AHR) and associated research. Three days later a general scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017 was published. This month, the bill went to Ireland’s Oireachtas health committee for scrutiny (see BioNews 934), after which it will go back to the Irish government for a final bill to be drafted. This is very exciting as it will be the first legislation in Ireland on assisted reproduction: setting up a legislative and regulatory structure under which the practice of AHR may operate.

The legislation is very comprehensive and forward-thinking in many respects. That said, I am disappointed with the proposals in relation to surrogacy: if enacted, the law could significantly impact access to surrogacy for many Irish couples.

Proposals considered in 2014 resulted in the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015. While proposals for the reassignment of legal parentage in surrogacy cases were made, no such provisions made it into the final version of the act. Proposals relating to donor conception did make it into the act but have not yet been brought into force. Notwithstanding, I am reasonably optimistic that the new AHR legislation and regulation will be put in place.

So what is different now? Well, there is a changed mood. It is accepted that infertility and subfertility are on the rise. Public opinion would be supportive of such legislation. We have an interested young population whose voices are heard and we have a Government that is willing to tackle conservative thinking in many areas such as this. 

According to the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health, the number of fertility cycles for AHR procedures in Ireland had risen to almost 9000 in 2016. This figure is likely to continue to rise. The time has come for the Government to deal with the issues.

The general scheme is very forward thinking. It proposes to permit PGD, sex selection on medical grounds, the use of supernumerary embryos for research, and posthumous assisted reproduction. 

While it also contains provision for legalising surrogacy in Ireland, these proposals are in my view worryingly restrictive. The legislation proposes that only altruistic surrogacy which takes place in Ireland will be permitted. Such surrogacy arrangements will need to gain the prior approval of the regulatory authority.

I am also perturbed to see the proposal that the provision of any technical, medical or professional service (including legal advice) which would help to facilitate any other surrogacy – e.g. foreign or commercial surrogacy­ – be prohibited.

The penalties for a contravention of this section are substantial, including a fine not exceeding €100,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both. 

This is in contrast to the 2014 report of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality which concluded that no sanction should be imposed on parents for breach of the surrogacy provisions proposed in the 2014 bill as it was felt that such penalties would be against the interests of the child. My hope is that the penalty provisions would be revisited and that the proposed prohibition on the provision of advice either medical or legal, be removed.

I am very sorry to note that no provision for transfer of legal parenthood in cases of surrogacy is contemplated in the current scheme. This is a missed opportunity. There are many children in Ireland born through surrogacy arrangements living with a male parent, recognised under Irish law, and a second adult whose relationship with the child is not recognised - even if that person is biologically related to the child. My hope is that the legislation would contain appropriate provisions for the retrospective transfer of legal parentage for children already born through surrogacy.

So what are my hopes and dreams for the bill in general? I hope that inclusive and forward-thinking legislation will be put in place and that the practice of AHR will be properly regulated. For too long our fertility clinics in Ireland have had to practice in what was essentially a legal lacuna.

I hope that the proposed regulatory authority will be set up and will be operational in a very short period of time. Many of the provisions contained in this legislation are contingent on the establishment of such an authority. And I hope that the section on surrogacy will be re-visited and that access to surrogacy will be less restrictive.

I am pleased to note the provisions in relation to counselling contained in the scheme. Currently, there is no requirement that any person availing of AHR services in this jurisdiction is required to undergo counselling. 

Alongside with this scheme the Department of Health has indicated an intention to provide public funding for couples needing to avail of AHR services. My hope is that public funding would be made available to assist couples with fertility issues.

Apart from my concerns relating to the surrogacy proposals, in general, the scheme contains more than I ever expected. I understand that this piece of legislation may not be on the legislative programme before the summer recess, but I hope that the draftsmen will get to work on the bill and that we might expect to see legislation in place at least by this time next year.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

22 January 2018 - by Ruth Retassie 
Details of Ireland's proposed Assisted Human Reproduction Bill were revealed in a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee...
23 October 2017 - by Dr Michelle Rodgers 
Equity and access are among the most urgent issues for medically assisted reproduction. According to Ireland's Health Research Board, across Europe six countries offer full public funding, and 19 countries offer partial public funding...
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...
02 October 2017 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
A complaint about radio and internet advertisements for a major IVF clinic in Ireland has been upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland...
15 May 2017 - by Fiona Duffy 
When I was first asked to review this book, written by Fiona Whyte and Sean Malone, I can’t say that I was full of enthusiasm at the prospect. I had seen the television documentary, heard some of the radio interviews and the ensuing long discussions concerning the thorny issues raised by the authors...


 

USA announces $190 million for genome editing research

29 January 2018

By Hannah Tippett Simpson

Appeared in BioNews 935

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced a plan to grant US$190 million for genome editing research. The new programme, Somatic Cell Genome Editing, which is supported by the NIH Common Fund will award funds to biomedical researchers over the next six years.

'Genome editing technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 are revolutionising biomedical research,' said Dr Francis Collins, director of NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. 'The focus of the Somatic Cell Genome Editing programme is to dramatically accelerate the translation of these technologies to the clinic for treatment of as many genetic diseases as possible.'

Genome editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 present the opportunity to potentially treat disease by removing the DNA at fault from a cell, essentially 'editing' it out.

In the first public discussion of the programme on 1 September 2017, Dr Mary Ellen Perry, a programme leader in the agency's Office of Strategic Coordination said: 'We're hoping that we've come up with a concept that would help to accelerate the approaches for therapeutic genome editing. There are thousands of incurable genetic diseases which now at least potentially or theoretically are treatable through these new gene editing technologies.'

The focus of the programme, is of genome editing techniques in somatic cells - non-reproductive body cells. Successful therapeutics in somatic cells would not be inherited and so does not raise the ethical concerns associated with permanent germline genome editing.

The purpose of the programme is to assemble a genome editing 'toolkit' of knowledge, methods, and tools to be shared with the scientific community. More specifically it aims to improve the delivery mechanisms for targeted genome editing tools, develop new and improved genome editors, and design assays that can be used to evaluate the safety and efficacy of those tools.

Although much excitement exists around the advances made in genome editing and their potential clinical benefits, concerns have been raised by recent research at Stanford University that suggested that CRISPR treatment could trigger an immune response rendering therapy at best ineffective, but possibly dangerous (see BioNews 933). The NIH's financial support for the programme itself is also conditional upon annual budget appropriations.

Scientists are positive about the programme. As Dr Perry said at the presentation of concept: 'What comes out of this programme, could impact everything from common disorders to rare diseases. It's almost difficult to think of a condition that this might not be applicable to.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News | 24 January 2018
 
US National Institutes of Health | 23 January 2018
 
Endpoints News | 23 January 2018
 
Gizmodo | 24 January 2018
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

07 August 2017 - by Dr Greg Ball 
Research into human germline genome editing should continue, recommends an international group of 11 human genetics organisations...
08 August 2016 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The US National Institutes of Health is considering lifting a ban on the funding of research to create human-animal 'chimeras' and replacing it with an ethical review process...
27 June 2016 - by Rachel Reeves 
The first in-human use of the genome-editing technology CRISPR has been approved by a US federal safety board...
05 May 2015 - by Ayala Ochert 
The US National Institutes of Health has issued a firm statement that it will not fund any research involving gene-editing technologies in human embryos...


 

First primates clones using 'Dolly method' created in China

29 January 2018

By Dr Rachel Huddart

Appeared in BioNews 935

Chinese scientists have announced the successful cloning of monkeys using the same method that produced Dolly the Sheep over 20 years ago.

The two macaque monkeys, named Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua after the Mandarin words for the Chinese nation and people, were born after the researchers used an updated version of SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer), where DNA from the cell to be cloned is inserted into an egg cell with no DNA.

The team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China used improved microscopy techniques in addition to chemically treating the DNA to overcome the hurdles experienced by other groups trying to clone monkeys using SCNT, publishing their results in Cell. Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua are not the first monkeys to be cloned, however. Tetra was born in 1999 as a result of a different cloning technique called embryo splitting (see BioNews 041).

Unlike Dolly, who was the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua were cloned from fetal cells, which are considered to be easier to clone than adult cells. The team did conduct cloning experiments using adult monkey cells, resulting in the births of another two monkeys. However, both died within hours of birth from developmental and breathing problems.

The new study has reignited concerns about the possibility of human cloning, as monkeys are closely related to humans. However, the ethical, regulatory and technical barriers are still likely to prevent this from happening.

'The work in this paper is not a stepping-stone to establishing methods for obtaining live born human clones,' said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London. 'This clearly remains a very foolish thing to attempt, it would be far too inefficient, far too unsafe, and it is also pointless. Clones may be genetically identical, but we are far from only being a product of our genes.'

The researchers hope that this new version of SCNT can be combined with genome editing to produce improved primate models for diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The natural genetic variation between different animals can make it difficult for researchers to determine how effective a particular treatment is. As Professor Terry Sejnowski, from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, explained to Nature News: 'Working with cloned animals greatly reduces the variability of the genetic background, so fewer animals are needed.'

The Shanghai team expect more cloned monkeys to be born within the next few months and hope to have genetically edited cloned monkeys in a year's time.

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...

27 November 2017 - by Dr Rachel Huddart 
Fears that cloning caused Dolly the Sheep to have early-onset osteoarthritis are 'unfounded', according to new research...
14 November 2016 - by Jenny Sharpe 
Dolly the sheep was undoubtedly the world's most famous sheep – but how did she come to be, and what did she mean to her creator, Professor Sir Ian Wilmut?...
15 August 2016 - by Dr Peter D Sozou 
This book makes a startling prediction – within the next 20 to 40 years, most people with access to good healthcare will no longer have sex to conceive their children. Instead, parents will simply provide a few skin cells as the raw material for production of embryos...
28 September 2015 - by Brendan Foht 
Compared to the frenzy over human cloning a decade ago, in recent years the issue has received very little political attention. But as the ongoing fights over CRISPR and mitochondrial replacement show, some of the underlying debates are still with us...


 

US lesbian couple's parental rights upheld after sperm donor asserts paternity

29 January 2018

By Sam Sherratt

Appeared in BioNews 935

A New York appeal court has ruled that a man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple has no legal right to demand a paternity test for the resulting child.

In 2013, the man voluntarily donated sperm to a lesbian couple to allow them to have a baby. Before the insemination took place, he signed a written agreement waiving any claim to legal paternity but had a change of heart seven months after the child was born. The mothers married prior to the birth, and both are named on the birth certificate.

His legal challenge asserting a right to conduct a paternity test was initially granted by a Family Court judge in Chemung County, New York. This would have allowed him to confirm his status as the biological father and potentially make further legal challenges. That decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court's Third Judicial Department after an appeal by the child's mothers.

Beth Littrell, a staff council from the American LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) civil rights organisation Lambda Legal, praised the ruling. 'Thankfully the court did not elevate biology over this child's reality,' she said. 'This is a family, and the child has two parents, and that they're the same gender and not biologically related is unimportant.'

Married couples are usually exempt from intrusive paternity tests due to a legal concept known as the 'presumption of legitimacy', where it is simply assumed that the child belongs to the couple. In some cases, however, this can be challenged. With a heterosexual couple, this can involve trying to prove that the husband and wife could not have been in the same place when the child was conceived. With same-sex couples this becomes complicated, as it is immediately obvious they did not conceive naturally.

Justice Robert C. Mulvey, one of the five judges involved in the decision, wrote about the challenges of applying this concept to same-sex couples. 'Application of existing case law involving different-gender spouses … to a child born to a same-gender married couple is inherently problematic, as it is not currently scientifically possible for same-gender couples to produce a child that is biologically "the product of the marriage",' wrote Mulvey.

Despite these difficulties, the judges ultimately came down in favour of the mothers, ruling against granting a paternity test on the basis that it would be an undue and unnecessary burden on an existing same-sex family.

'We believe that it must be true that a child born to a same-gender married couple is presumed to be their child,' said the justices in their unanimous decision. 'If we were to conclude otherwise, children born to same-gender couples would be denied the benefit of this presumption without a compelling justification.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Court House News | 25 January 2018
 
Times Union | 25 January 2018
 
New York Law Journal | 25 January 2018
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

08 January 2018 - by Dr Lanay Griessner 
Germany's Federal Court of Justice has ruled that the a trans woman must be registered as her child's legal father and not its mother.
27 November 2017 - by Daniel Bodri, Nick Macklon and Kamal Ahuja 
In 2008, parliament voted to scrap the controversial 'need for a father' requirement from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act; a consideration for 'supportive parenting' took its place. Alongside legislation giving rights to civil partnership (2004) and to marriage (2014) to same-sex couples, this provided the basis for a sudden surge in fertility treatment options for single and lesbian women...
15 August 2016 - by Ryan Ross 
Three same-sex female couples are suing the US state of New Jersey for what they claim are discriminatory rules regarding the funding of fertility treatment...


 

China has treated 86 people with CRISPR genome editing

29 January 2018

By Meghna Kataria

Appeared in BioNews 935

China has administered CRISPR genome editing to at least 86 cancer patients, a new report has revealed.

The Wall Street Journal has found evidence of 11 genome editing clinical trials in China, geared towards targeting an array of cancers and HIV infection. One is reported to have started as early as 2015.

US researchers were the first to use CRISPR to edit DNA. However, genome-editing trials have yet to be approved in the country. China, by contrast, has much less intensive regulation in this area.

'China shouldn't have been the first one to do [a human genome editing trial],' Dr Shixiu Wu, who is leading one of China's first such trials at Hangzhou Cancer Hospital, told the Wall Street Journal. 'But there are fewer restrictions.'

Researchers from University of Pennsylvania in the USA are yet to receive final regulatory clearance for CRISPR-based cancer therapeutics. Dr Wu's trial is using genome editing to treat oesophageal cancer. The team aims to edit the genome of immune T cells extracted from patient blood to halt the production of PD-1, a protein which helps cancer cells evade the immune system, before reinfusing the modified cells into the patients.

The report also highlighted instances of less stringent, sometimes inconsistent review processes for human trials faced by Chinese researchers compared with their Western counterparts. The latter must field hospital review boards, ethics committees and government agencies before receiving approval.

Dr Carl June, lead scientist from the University of Pennsylvania study, spoke of regulatory asymmetry between the USA and China. 'We are at a dangerous point in losing our lead in biomedicine. It is hard to know what the ideal is between moving quickly and making sure patients are safe.'

Despite its purported efficacy and ease of use in laboratory-based studies, CRISPR research faces concerns regarding unintended alterations within DNA ('off-target' effects, see BioNews 903), or even rejection by the patient's immune system (see BioNews 933).

Calling CRISPR a double-edged sword, Dr Wu said: 'If we don't try, we will never know.'

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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...
04 September 2017 - by Annabel Slater 
A group of scientists have challenged the landmark study which reported the first successful editing of human embryos for a genetic disease...
25 July 2016 - by Rachel Siden 
Chinese scientists plan to start the first-ever clinical trial of CRISPR genome-editing technology in humans – on patients with lung cancer – this August...
26 October 2015 - by Isobel Steer 
Scientists in China have used the gene-editing technique CRISPR/Cas9 to create dogs with increased muscle mass...


 

Parental genes influence their children through 'genetic nurture'

29 January 2018

By Julianna Photopoulos

Appeared in BioNews 935

Parental genes can influence their children, even if the genes are not passed down at all, according to a new study. Instead, the parents' nature – or genetic makeup – impacts how they nurture their children, a phenomenon called 'genetic nurture'.

'The discussion of nature versus nurture is often framed so that the two factors are treated as, if not competitive, independent forces. This study illustrates that not only do genes and nurture often work hand in hand, there is a genetic basis to nurture,' said lead author Professor Augustine Kong of the University of Oxford.

Each parent passes down one copy of their genes to their children. The researchers compared genes of 21,637 Icelanders and their parents, and also looked at their educational levels. They found that even gene variants that were not passed down had an effect on how long the children stayed in school. This influence was 30 percent as strong as the genes that were inherited from the parents.

'Variants that have to do with planning with the future could have the biggest effect on nurturing,' Professor Kong told The New York Times.

Professor Philip Koellinger from VU University Amsterdam and Dr Paige Harden from the University of Texas wrote in a comment article in Science: 'This genetic nurture effect is an indirect link between parental genotype and children's characteristics, not caused by the children's own biology but rather by the family environment that covaries with parental genes.'

Dr Piter Bijma, who studies animal breeding and genetics at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, was not surprised by these results. He told The New York Times: 'Humans provide substantial care to their offspring, and so the nurture they create is very likely to have a genetic component.'

The study focused on individuals and their parents, the parents are also impacted by their parents, and so on. However it is thought that siblings can have a similar effect on each other too. Additionally, not all parental genes have an effect through genetic nurture. The researchers did not find any evidence of genetic nurture in children's height and body weight. 

Among wealthy societies, genetic nurture 'might be more relevant for behavior and social achievements than for more biologically proximal outcomes such as body size,' noted Professor Koellinger and Dr Harden. They also mention that taking genetic nurture into consideration could have important implications for social inequality and health, in future research.

Dr Kári Stefánsson of deCODE genetics and author of the study thinks the research could also help understand how the brain works. 'The propensity to nurture is a defining trait for a person that is inseparable from the brain,' he said. 'Identifying sequence variants that contribute to nurture can thus be an important step towards the understanding of the workings of the human brain and what makes humans human.'

The study was published in the journal Science

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

25 September 2017 - by Dr Rosie Gilchrist 
Parents pass on more new genetic mutations to their children with age, and fathers pass on more than mothers, according to a study...
25 April 2016 - by Lone Hørlyck 
Genetic factors relating to physical maturation and personality may influence the age at which people first have sex, a study has found...
15 June 2015 - by Ceri Durham 
Researchers say they have identified a genetic link between 'creativity' and the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder...
30 March 2015 - by Meghna Kataria 
Scientists in Iceland have produced a comprehensive portrait of the nation's genetic makeup...
13 October 2014 - by Chris Baldacci 
Researchers may have finally settled the question of which matters more for a child's development - nature or nurture; and nature appears to be the winner, according to a study looking at GCSE scores...


 

Human trophoblast stem cells cultured for first time

29 January 2018

By Emma Laycock

Appeared in BioNews 935

Scientists in Japan have cultured human trophoblast stem cells, which form the placenta, for the first time.

'Trophoblast cells play an essential role in the interactions between the fetus and mother,' said study author Professor Takahiro Arima of Tohoku University School of Medicine, Japan. The research was published in Cell Stem Cell.

The placenta originates from trophoblast cells. If the growth of these cells is impaired, it can lead to placenta-based pregnancy complications, such as preeclampsia. The placenta provides oxygen and nutrients for the fetus and removes waste products. One in ten pregnancies have placenta-based complications.

Without a human stem cell model, these cells have been difficult to study. In the new study, the team moved towards a model, by first using genetic sequencing on trophoblast cells from human placenta to discover how the cells are maintained in the body. They found a combination of genes that were either activated or inactivated, and mimicked this to keep the cells alive in a dish.

In addition, the team could differentiate the trophoblast stem cells into different trophoblast cell types but further research is needed to fully test their potential, it said.

Other models of human trophoblast cells have been made previously, but according to the scientists, these cells have a different protein expression compared with native trophoblast cells.

'Our goal was to establish human trophoblast stem cells [as a tool for future study],' said Professor Arima. The human trophoblast stem cell line could provide a platform for studying placental disease and potentially for discovering diagnostic biomarkers and therapeutic targets for common pregnancy complications.

The new culture system will provide a powerful tool to study human trophoblast development and function, the researchers said. 'Our culture system for human trophoblast stem cells is potentially useful for understanding the pathogenesis of developmental disorders with trophoblast defects, such as miscarriage, preeclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction,' said Professor Arima.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Cell Stem Cell | 14 December 2017
 
University of Tohoku | 24 January 2018
 

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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...
16 October 2017 - by Helen Robertson 
Scientists have created the most versatile stem cells to date, which could boost research into the reasons behind failed early pregnancies...


 

Bi-national gay couples' children denied US citizenship

29 January 2018

By Ewa Zotow

Appeared in BioNews 935

Two same-sex married couples have filed lawsuits against the US State Department after being refused US citizenship for one of their children.

One partner in each couple is not a US citizen. Both couples are legally married, their children were conceived and born outside the USA during their marriages, and both partners in each couple are the only legal parents listed on their children's birth certificates.

Twin sons of Elad and Andrew Dvash-Banks were born minutes apart via surrogate. One of the twins was conceived with Elad's sperm, and the other with Andrew's. The other couple, Allison Blixt and Stefania Zaccari, each carried and gave birth to a son conceived using donor sperm.

However, the US State Department only recognized the children biologically related to the US citizens to be eligible for the citizenship. The other children, in the eyes of law, cannot claim the same right.

The State Department notes on its website that children born through assisted reproductive technology are granted citizenship at birth if they are biologically related to a US citizen parent.

However, Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality which filed the lawsuits, claims that the policy used in both cases should only apply to 'children born out of wedlock'. The correct policy for married parents does not require a blood relationship.

The Dvash-Banks were specifically asked to undergo genetic testing to prove their relationship to their sons. Morris claims that the policy is discriminatory as it suggests that the same-sex marriage 'doesn't count'.

'When a man and a woman walk into a consulate of the US with a marriage certificate and a birth certificate, no one asks them any questions about biology,' said Morris.

The demand for biological relatedness was intended to prevent immigration fraud and trafficking. However, the use of assisted reproductive technology means that some children may not meet the requirement. Same-sex couples are particularly affected as they often rely on artificial insemination and surrogacy.

'The fact that the State Department's policy has led children identified by their birth certificates as boys with the same parents to have different nationalities listed on their passports crystallises both the indignity and absurdity of the policy's effect,' stated the lawsuit.

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

12 February 2018 - by Theofanis Michailidis 
Lyle Hillyard of the Utah state Senate is seeking to overturn legislation giving legal protection to parties involved in surrogacy agreements, to prevent it being used by same-sex couples...

18 December 2017 - by Georgia Everett 
A woman has asked the Hawaii Supreme Court to overturn a ruling denying her request to sever parental rights to a child born to her ex-wife...
10 July 2017 - by Jennifer Willows 
A same-sex French couple have won a partial victory in their fight to be recognised as the legal parents of their child, who was born via surrogate in the US...
13 February 2017 - by Dr Alice Margaria 
It is not the first time that a court has been called to rule on the recognition of family ties established between a male couple and their twins born from surrogacy abroad. But the recent ruling of the Court of Appeal of Milan has attracted particular interest because of its absurd consequences...
04 February 2013 - by James Brooks 
The French Justice Minister's instruction to courts to accept citizenship applications for children born via surrogates in other countries has unleashed a political and popular furore...


 

Book Review: Selective Reproduction in the 21st Century

29 January 2018

By Jamie Rickman

Appeared in BioNews 935

Selective Reproduction in the 21st Century

Edited by Professor Tine Gammeltoft and Professor Ayo Wahlberg

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-10: 3319582194, ISBN-13: 978-3319582191

Buy this book from Amazon UK


In 2012, social scientists representing 20 different countries and all five continents gathered to discuss the 'routinization' and globalisation of selective reproductive technologies in Copenhagen, Denmark. The editors of this book, Professors Ayo Wahlberg and Tine M. Gammeltoft, anthropologists at the University of Copenhagen, organised the conference in response to what they saw as an urgent need to explore the ethical, social and political questions surrounding the emerging field of selective reproductive technologies (SRTs) - as distinct from the more established and well-researched field of assistive reproductive technologies (ARTs). This book is a synthesis of that conference: each chapter a contribution from an attendee presenting their research into SRTs.

As a collection of ethnographic studies, I found this book to be informative, thorough and balanced. But in addition, the voices that are heard in these chapters - the intimate portraits of women and families and their hopes and fears - make this book an engrossing and sometimes a highly emotional read.

Professors Wahlberg and Gammeltoft deftly articulate the distinction between ARTs and SRTs in their introductory chapter 'From Helping Hand to Guiding Hand'. ARTs, like IVF, are a 'helping hand' and seek only to overcome childlessness. In contrast, SRTs go further than this, explicitly directing the course of nature by selecting which gametes, embryos or fetuses will be taken to term, using technologies such as PGS (preimplantation genetic screening).

SRTs have the power to prevent the birth of children with hereditary diseases and disabilities. They have therefore been called 'soft eugenics', particularly in countries where their use is promoted by the state. But the controversy one might expect to surround such a technology has, in some countries, been knowingly suppressed by scientists, clinicians, marketers and governments - each with their own agendas - who write the policy and frame the conversations surrounding SRTs, argues the book. This is brilliantly articulated in Chapter 3, which describes how scientists from the US and UK working on SRTs carefully dissociate their research on sex selection technologies from Chinese and Indian sex-selective practices, which are widely condemned, instead aligning with the less morally problematic ARTs.

The American reproductive technology market, then continued this process of normalisation by presenting sex selection under the innocuous guise of 'family balancing', argue the authors. In different countries, we learn that women and families are being sheltered from the reality that, in using SRTs, they are making 'concrete and embodied decisions about the standard of entry into the human community'.

Professors Wahlberg and Gammeltoft go on to elaborate their title theme in 'Tracking Routes of Routinization' and carefully lay out the methodology in the book into four empirical routes of investigation; policies and regulations surrounding SRTs, people who use SRTs, the sites where SRTs are deployed and the technologies themselves. With these signposts as a starting point they set out to elucidate the 'variegated patterns of acceptance [of SRTs] in different countries: from pioneering "breakthroughs", at times followed by periods of concern and resistance, then regulation and eventually routinisation'.

Different contributors choose different routes of investigation, which makes for a rather idiosyncratic selection of case studies. For example, Chapter 3 is a detailed historical account of the evolution of the sex selection technology MicroSort from its conception in a weapons laboratory, through to its adoption by the agriculture industry, and its eventual status as a technology embodying neo-liberal ideas of self-determination.

In contrast, 'Tracing Taiwanese Women's Experience of PST [prenatal screening and testing]' in Chapter 5 focuses solely on the anecdotal experiences of women and their partners and includes drawings done by interviewees in response to the question 'what is your experience of PST?'. This creative form of fieldwork reveals a deep insight; when the male partners are asked to make the same drawings they never place themselves in the image, but rather depict the woman and the clinician. The author interprets this as reflecting their emotional distance from the experience. The broad range of approaches and styles does not detract from the focus of the book but rather resonates with the diversity of social, political and religious landscapes described in each chapter, as well keeping the reader entertained throughout.

The seven chapters are grouped into three sections each relating to one of the three primary uses of SRTs; sex selection,preventing disease and disability, and selecting traits. This grouping emphasises how women from different countries using SRTs with the same objective can have starkly contrasting experiences. This is most striking in the juxtaposed case studies from Denmark and Taiwan on the use of PGS. This is used to detect abnormalities in a fetus, such as Down's syndrome, and is offered free to pregnant women in both countries. Excerpts from interviews with Danish women undergoing PGS reveal a cool, matter-of-factness; they speak of 'opting out' of a pregnancy and keep the 'moral and ethical predicaments [of PGS] at arms length'. The study suggests that availability of the technology and its highly institutionalised status allows Danish women to abnegate their own individual responsibility to a collective authority- a kind of 'techno-shaping' of morality. By contrast, in Taiwan it is the woman who is charged with the burden of choice and ultimate responsibility for the unborn child. This societal pressure triggers deep anxiety and distress in the Taiwanese women, unlike their Danish counterparts, even though PGS and therapeutic abortions are not viewed negatively.

That women's experiences of SRTs are determined by societal forces is made clear from the second and most harrowing chapter in the book 'Coping with Sex-Selective Abortions in Vietnam', which includes a moving and unflinching account of a late-term termination. In Vietnam, the one-or-two child policy enforces small family sizes but there is also huge cultural pressure for male heirs. Sex selective termination is widespread, but it is considered a sin and there is great stigma and shame apportioned to women who go through it. This chapter was the most personal of them all; Professor Gammeltoft even recounts a traumatic nightmare she had following the time she spent with her interviewees, adding depth and colour to the study.

Overall this compendium of ethnographies gives great insight into the complex and far-reaching topic of how SRTs are being shaped by, and are shaping different societies across the globe, and how this in turn affects the women and families using them. The accounts are clear, well-articulated and mercifully free of statistics and jargon. The diversity of voices and stories presented is testament to the power of international, collaborative research.


Selective Reproduction in the 21st Century is available from Amazon UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

12 February 2018 - by Dr Anna Smajdor 
Academics have written at length on the ethics of reproductive technologies, abortion and speculative possibilities such as reproductive cloning. But pregnancy itself up until recently has been a somewhat neglected topic...

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...
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'...
11 December 2017 - by Norbert Gleicher 
A seemingly brilliant hypothesis of preimplantation genetic screening arose in the 1990s when Dr Yuri Verlinsky proposed using polar body biopsies to detect chromosomal abnormalities in embryos prior to transfer in IVF... Healthy embryos are discarded by unvalidated PGS


 

Radio Review: Surrogacy in The Archers

29 January 2018

By Olivia Montuschi

Appeared in BioNews 935

The Archers

BBC Radio 4, broadcast daily

'The Archers', BBC Radio 4, broadcast daily


For some unknown reason rooted in the mists of time I am addicted to The Archers, the not-so-everyday story of country folk that has been running on Radio 4 at 7pm every day except Saturday pretty much for ever. This soap is known for tackling big subjects. In the field of conception and assisted reproduction, it's covered abortion (most recently Pip's realisation that she couldn't go through with it), donor conception (solo mum Helen and her son Henry) and now surrogacy.

Adam Macey, eco-farmer and illegitimate son of Jennifer Archer, and his husband Ian Craig, head chef at the local smart hotel, are hoping to start a family and are looking for a surrogate to help them. It is really Ian who has wanted children for a long time. He had to persuade Adam that this was a good idea and initially they were going to try to adopt a child.

The idea of surrogacy came from Ian's good friend Helen, single mum to a sperm-donor-conceived child. Again, Adam took some persuading but eventually came round and they started the process. Ian wanted to be the biological father and was devastated to find that his sperm did not seem to be up to scratch. However, there was no mention of further investigations or procedures or ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection).

Until very recently there was no mention at all of the potential for seeking a surrogate and egg donor overseas. Whilst a UK arrangement is definitely preferable from the child's point of view, it was odd that going abroad was not discussed earlier. Adam and Ian seem to have found an organisation that sounds remarkably like Surrogacy UK and through them started talking to a woman who was interested in working with them, but eventually pulled out.

In the meantime, Adam's sperm has been found to be plentiful, with good swimmers, so he will be the biological dad. Ian's feelings about his sub-fertility and sadness about not being able to create a child have been well explored. Even so, I kept shouting at the radio that it only takes one and if he's not completely infertile they should be trying ICSI.

Adam and Ian appear to be on the books of a fertility clinic and there are occasional mentions of them being on a waiting list for a surrogate (not sure this is a service that clinics provide). But in the meantime they are on the lookout for someone they know who could help. Who should offer her services on a drunken evening but Lexi, Bulgarian ex-fruit-picker from Adam's farm who is currently working temporarily at Grey Gables, the hotel where Ian is chef.

Lexi is in a relationship with Roy, one of the hotel's administrative staff. Over the last couple of weeks there have been fraught conversations between Ian and Lexi, Adam and Ian and more recently Lexi and Roy about whether Lexi meant what she said and the implications for everyone, and particularly for Lexi and Roy's relationship if she did carry Ian and Adam's baby. Roy found it difficult to get his head round his girlfriend carrying a child for someone else.

Initially, because she values her relationship with Roy, Lexi retracted her offer. But as I write on 25 January, Roy has relented, Lexi renewed her offer and Ian and Adam have gratefully accepted, although she is adamant that her eggs should not be used. No doubt there will be further plot twists and turns before this story plays out. Of course, in real life an offer to be a surrogate does not always translate into the happy scenario of a live birth.

How realistic is this portrayal of a gay couple looking for a surrogate? It's hard to know but I suspect that very few men would be satisfied with the vague 'they don't seem to be moving' diagnosis that Ian seems to have been given following a sperm test. We are not told if this was done locally or at a fertility clinic. I am sure that all gay couples at least explore initially the possibilities of going abroad, even if things like the astronomical cost, put them off in the end. I don't recall money or legal matters being mentioned at all, which seems a little implausible.

The introduction of a fertility problem was a good addition to the story line as it is relatable for many couples. Ian's feelings about this were given plenty of space. The false starts and hopes and disappointments experienced are also probably typical of any couple seeking surrogacy and actually most fertility treatments.

There has been a lot of comment by other characters about being sure that Ian and Adam will be good dads. But there hasn't been much space devoted to how a child might feel about being conceived with help from a donor and a surrogate and having two dads. These are all topics that are conspicuously absent from the agenda of organisations promoting the rights of everyone to be able to have a child. Not that there is necessarily a problem, but it is something that should be spoken about and explored rather than being ignored.

Let's hope that at some point the child's perspective is addressed. If the surrogate does turn out to be Lexi, they will obviously remain in contact with her (unless she disappears back to Bulgaria for good). If their egg donor comes via a UK clinic then she will be identifiable when the child reaches 18. As a gay couple they will also have to tell the child about their biological origin early on, this being something that Helen failed to do with Henry, who seems only to have had the information about his beginnings from around age eight.

We shall see…

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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...
11 December 2017 - by Eleanor Taylor 
Despite concerted efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding fertility struggles, there still appears to be a 'facelessness' to this incredibly common issue, which suggests that fertility is still very much a taboo subject...
04 December 2017 - by Jennifer Willows 
Of Kith and Kin is a play about surrogacy that seems to have very little to say about surrogacy...

 

 

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