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IVF children may have altered gene activity, study finds

11 January 2010
Appeared in BioNews 540

Differences in the pattern of gene activity between children conceived naturally and those conceived following IVF have been identified, the Sunday Times newspaper resported last week.

So-called epigenetic changes, which alter the pattern of activity of certain genes, as opposed to the DNA sequence, may help to explain the slightly increased risk of certain health problems among children conceived through assisted reproduction technologies, according to a study published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics. However, the origins of these changes are not well understood and it is not clear whether complications associated with the infertility of the parents might play a role, and not the IVF process itself.

As well as health problems, epigenetic errors could also have implications for susceptibility to cancer and other common diseases later in life, Professor Carmen Sapienza, a geneticist based at Temple University in Philadelphia and co-leader of the study, told the Sunday Times. 'These epigenetic differences have the potential to affect embryonic development and fetal growth, as well as influencing long-term patterns of gene expression associated with increased risk of many human diseases,' he said.

The researchers studied a phenomenon known as 'DNA methylation', the process by which genes not needed in certain tissues are 'switched off' by the attachment of molecules known as 'methyl groups' to the DNA sequence. By examining blood samples taken from the placenta and umbilical cord of 10 IVF children and 13 children who were conceived naturally, the researchers were able to identify differences in the methylation pattern between these two groups. They found that certain genes in babies conceived following IVF tended to have lower methylation levels in placental tissue and higher methylation levels among umbilical cord blood tissue, compared to babies among the group that had been conceived naturally.

It is unclear from the results what effect the epigenetic differences observed might have on gene expression and whether or not they are related to the IVF process. Another possible explanation is that the sperm and eggs of infertile couples may have a higher incidence of epigenetic changes, said Professor Sapienza. Further research is needed to establish the origins of these epigenetic differences and whether or not assisted reproductive technologies are to blame.

DNA methylation and gene expression differences in children conceived in vitro or in vivo
Human Molecular Genetics |  15 October 2009
IVF babies 'risk major diseases'
The Sunday Times |  10 January 2010
10 December 2012 - by Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash 
Children born as a result of fertility treatment are more likely to develop asthma, say scientists...
26 July 2010 - by Victoria Kay 
Children born following IVF are more likely to develop childhood cancers than children conceived naturally, according to a new study. This risk does, however, appear to be small and may result from specific postnatal factors...
14 June 2010 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The risk of congenital malformations is increased in children born through assisted reproductive technology (ART), such as IVF or ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), researchers report today at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics....
1 March 2010 - by Dr Sophie Pryor 
Women who undergo fertility treatment are four times more likely to have a stillborn baby than those who conceive naturally or use other methods, according to a new study...
18 January 2010 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
Readers will have noticed a couple of news reports and Rosalind John's excellent commentary on this topic in the last few weeks, but I make no apology for returning to the subject so soon. I believe this area of research will spark interest from the media for years to come. This is not because I fear research will necessarily uncover some unsuspected risk to the health of people born after IVF (we can't know until we do the research) but because we are ...
18 December 2009 - by Dr Jay Stone 
Non-profit Icelandic company deCODE genetics has published an article in Nature reporting that our chance of developing genetic disease can be different depending on whether we inherited the genes from our mother or father....
11 December 2009 - by Dr Rosalind M John 
The aim of assisted reproductive technology (ART) is to achieve a single most important goal, the birth of a healthy child. ART is responsible for the birth of over 200,000 children each year worldwide. In the most common form of infertility treatment - IVF - the woman's eggs are collected and then combined with the man's sperm in a petri dish. The successfully fertilised eggs are then transferred into the woman's womb. In ...
2 August 2009 - by Professor Marcus Pembrey 
Epigenetics is about the when and where of gene activity and about shaping development in response to early experience - from internal cues in the growing embryo to the prevailing physical and the social environment. So it is not surprising that discoveries in epigenetics are being enthusiastically embraced by those who find the fatalism often associated with classical genetics rather soul-destroying. But it is important not to overstate the case for epigenetics. DNA sequence, its vari
23 February 2009 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A large study has investigated the potential genetic risks to children conceived by in vitro fertilisation (IVF). It confirms earlier research indicating that babies born following assisted conception have a small increased risk of certain genetic health problems. The New York Times reports that in November last...
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