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Last updated: February 23, 2010 1:22 am

Gene study raises health fears for IVF babies

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Petri dish with human embryos©Getty

Studies show that babies conceived using assisted reproductive technologies may suffer higher rates of obesity or diabetes than others

Babies conceived using assisted reproductive technologies may suffer higher rates of obesity or diabetes than others because some of their genes function differently, according to studies released at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Diego.

These genetic variations also result in other health risks including lower birth weight, said Carmen Sapienza of Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

The affected genes are involved in the development of fat tissue and glucose metabolism, hence the higher risk of obesity or diabetes later in life.

Technology that permits the large-scale study of “epigenetic” changes – the impact of the environment on the behaviour of DNA – has recently become ­available.

Dr Sapienza used it to compare a sample of 700 genes in children conceived naturally and through assisted reproductive technologies (ART), such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF). He found that more than 5 per cent of genes were working differently in the two groups.

He is now undertaking a more extensive study of 14,000 genes, and hoping to distinguish better between possible genetic differences related to parental infertility and epigenetic changes due to ART itself.

It was not surprising, Dr Sapienza said, that genes should function differently in “people who spend the first three days in a laboratory dish in 20 per cent oxygen, rather than inside mum in 5 per cent oxygen”.

Dr Sapienza said his findings “are consistent with the observation that ART children as a group are at slightly elevated risk for undesirable outcomes but that the majority of them are within the normal range of variation found in naturally conceived children”.

With ART now used so widely – accounting for 4 per cent of births in some industrialised countries – even a relatively small increase in disease risk could have a substantial overall impact on health.

Andre Van Steirteghem, an ART pioneer at Brussels University Hospital, runs the world’s most extensive project to follow the health of children born through assisted reproduction.

He pointed out that by far the greatest health risk of ART was still multiple births, resulting from the implantation of more than one embryo in the womb.

Prof Van Steirteghem said the technique of intracytoplasmic sperm injection – injecting a single sperm into the egg – probably carried more risk than straightforward IVF, which was less invasive.

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