ART affects babies' genes, but only temporarily
A study led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) has found that events that occur as part of assisted reproduction technology, including ovarian stimulation, manipulation of the embryo and the extra hormones common in fertility treatment cycles, can impact gene health or epigenetics in babies — but these effects are short lived.
Epigenetics is a process that controls how genes are turned on and off, and can be influenced by things like diet and other external environmental influences. But what sort of epigenetic changes occur due to assisted reproduction technology (ART), and are there any differences in these changes from birth to adulthood? According to the MCRI’s Dr Boris Novakovic, it’s an area that few studies have investigated.
“Previous studies have found some epigenetic changes in embryos grown in labs; however, no study has looked for these changes in the same individuals at birth and adulthood as we have done,” said Dr Novakovic, who performed most of the analysis for the new study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.
A cohort of Australians aged 22–35 years — 158 conceived through ART and 75 conceived naturally — was established by MCRI Professor Jane Halliday, who has studied the health of these individuals in adulthood. She noted that assisted conception is linked to a small increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, being small for gestational age or perinatal mortality.
“Given the interventions associated with assisted reproduction technology at the time of conception, there were concerns that epigenetic changes may be taking place, silencing important genes and resulting in a heightened risk of health problems,” she said.
So what were the results? MCRI’s Professor Richard Saffery, senior author on the study, revealed, “In two independent groups, we found the same effects of assisted reproduction on genes when examining heel prick blood spots collected soon after birth. These epigenetic changes were not evident in the adult blood samples.”
Dr Novakovic concluded, “Our results are reassuring for families, as they suggest that environment and lifestyle experienced from birth can repair any epigenetic deviations associated with fertility treatments.” He acknowledged, however, that more studies of larger sample sizes are needed in order to replicate the findings.
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