Ethical battles in science and medicine
21st October 2012
Battle of Ideas
I don’t normally spend Sunday mornings in the company of Scientists, but today being day 2 of the Battle of Ideas 2012 Conference, that’s exactly what I did. The subject was epigenetics, which is the study of heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the DNA sequence. In plain English this was essentially a scientific debate about the impact of the diet, lifestyle and general well-being of expectant Mothers, which not only had relevance for Mothers, but for anybody interested in gaining a greater understanding of themselves, their children and the impact of early years (pre-birth – age 7).
As a non-Scientist I won’t even venture to try to explain the complicated science of epigenetics, suffice to say scientists have drawn a clear link between the aforementioned factors of diet, lifestyle and general well-being, to name but three determinants of the characteristics of a baby-faced with a Mother of a disposition borne of such factors.
Emiritus Professor of Molecular Biology (University College, London) Marilyn Monk was firmly of the view that a baby in embryonic state (i.e. pre-birth) as well as during its early years is influenced by how well or not the mother is doing. This she claimed is important as it is a determinant factor in the future success of child.
Challenged by an audience member as to the validity of her claims for epigenetics, Marilyn Monk quoted the evidence that we very rarely see pregnant mothers smoking (or drinking alcohol I might add) as the link to a potential negative impact is now well established following accepted scientific analysis and empirical evidence.
Professor Martin Pembrey (Founder and Chair, Progress Educational Trust) explained that there were Public health implications. Scientists will have to explain and evidence the enduring effect on gene succession. The scientific community have a job to do to help society understand that critical periods over an individual’s life course are influenced by epigenetics and the lifestyle and well-being of the mother during pregnancy and early years of the child.
Epigenetics can also provide proof that the rise in obesity may not just a result of what’s happened in this generation, but previous generations too.
Professor Marcus Pembrey said further research was needed. He was of the opinion that learned behaviours do replicate overtime with consequences. For instance, if fathers start smoking before the age of 12, it is much more likely that their children will become obese. However, where a boy started smoking above the age of 12 there is no direct impact.
John Gillot, Researcher, Innogen, Open University, was sceptical about the links being drawn by his fellow panelists and said, “Proper hypothesis driven research was needed.”
If such epigenetic links are accurate then there is every likelihood of further scientific progress being made with positive benefits for future parents and society as a whole. This was a fascinating debate amongst the panelists with high level, intelligent contributions from a clearly well educated audience, seemimgly a trait in the DNA of many ‘Battle of Ideas’ attendees.
Tiemo Talk of the Town
27th October 2012
Fertility Treatment: A Life-Changing Event?
Progress Educational Trust
Institute of Child Health, University College London, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK
28 November 2012 – 9.30am-5pm
The 2012 annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust (PET), supported by an unrestricted educational grant from Merck Serono (gold sponsor) and also supported by the London Women’s Clinic (silver sponsor) and by Ferring Pharmaceuticals (bronze sponsor).
The conference will address the impact of mothers’ and fathers’ lifestyles upon conception, upon the success of fertility treatment, and upon the health of the resulting child. Conference sessions include ‘NICE Try: The Impact of Policy‘, ‘Calm Down Dear: The Impact of Stress‘, ‘Weighing Up Your Options: The Impact of Weight and Nutrition‘, ‘What’s Your Poison? The Impact of Alcohol and Smoking‘ and ‘The Age-Old Question: The Impact of Age‘.
Speakers and chairs include Dr Susan Bewley, Professor Jacky Boivin, Fiona Ford, Louisa Ghevaert, Professor Jean Golding, Dr Bas Heijmans, Dr Ellie Lee, Dr Gillian Lockwood, Professor Nick Macklon, Professor Neil McClure, Dr Allan Pacey, Lord Naren Patel, Tracey Sainsbury, Peter Taylor, Professor David Whittingham and Zita West.
In the PET tradition, following introductory presentations, the bulk of each session’s running time will be devoted to discussion with input from the audience. Lunch and refreshments will be provided on the day. Booking details follow and the conference agenda can be located here.