Many women have to face the well-known “genetic grief” that occurs when one has to give up their own gametes. This can generate fear and frustration in some couples. However, this matter covers a still unknown and very interesting topic for our fertility specialists: epigenetics.
What is epigenetics?
DNA, genes and epigenetics (changes in the genetic function without altering the DNA), can be perceived as an abstract concept that we do not fully understand. For this reason, and to understand what epigenetics is, we spoke to the Co-director and head of research at the IVF Donostia fertility clinic, Dr Estefanía Rodríguez.
Epigenetics is the science that studies what kind of effects or changes external or environmental factors can produce in gene function, without generating alterations in the DNA sequence.
According to the fertility specialist, “we are the result of interactions between all our genes and their interaction with the environment in which we live, from the time we are in the womb until we die.” Epigenetics plays a very important role in our lives, as we can experience changes in our DNA throughout our lifetime.
Nutritional factors such as diet, stress, exposure to toxins and certain hormonal changes can cause our epigenetics to change from the time we grow as embryos until we die. These changes can be favourable or unfavourable.
Epigenetic changes or modifications not only differentiate us physically or in the way we are, they can also generate diseases such as obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.
When do epigenetics change?
Several scientific investigations affirm that the environment and lifestyle of the pregnant mother, regardless of whether she is pregnant with her own or a donor embryo, can influence the expression or suppression of specific traits in the embryo, resulting in modifications, which can be observed in the process of transmission of diseases such as diabetes or obesity.
The literal meaning of epigenetics is “over and above the genome”. Interestingly, we observe that each gene, as we saw in the preimplantation genetic test for aneuploidy contains 2 copies that are usually read equally – one inherited from the sperm and the other from the egg. However, there are about 100 genes in which only one of these copies is read. This phenomenon is called “genomic imprinting”.
If these mechanisms do not work properly and both or neither copies are read, diseases such as Angelman syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome or Silver Russell syndrome can develop.
In addition, there are certain stages during a baby’s development when genetics, due to these environmental factors, are more susceptible to changes in the DNA. These stages are: pre-implantation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, childhood and puberty.
What influence does epigenetics have on egg donation?
As Dr Rodriguez explains that “we are the result of our interactions with the environment“, it has been demonstrated that the uterine environment, the body of the pregnant mother, the care during pregnancy, the environment in which the baby develops during pregnancy, regardless of whether the gametes are from donors, are fundamental factors that will inevitably influence the baby’s epigenetics and, therefore, will be reflected in its physical characteristics and its health.
In all the clinics of our IVF-Life group, we offer extensive information for all patients that are going to undergo egg donation treatment , emphasising that the DNA of the donated egg is not the main factor that influences the development of the future baby. There are many factors that influence the development of the baby to the person he or she will eventually become.
In what way does the mother-to-be influence the embryo?
Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that the environment such as dietary habits, exposure to certain toxins or the lifestyle of the mother has effects and consequences on the development of the future baby. It is a recognised fact in terms of epigenetics that the pregnant mother has an influence on the genetics of the embryo developing in her womb.
Advanced techniques: Egg donation and embryo donation
All this shows that pregnant mothers who undergo gamete donation treatment will develop biological and, to a certain degree, also genetic ties with their future children, thus proving that they will share much more with them than just the womb in which they grew.
Such gamete donation treatments can be embryo adoption and egg and/or sperm donation:
Roughly explained, these treatments consist of an in vitro fertilisation with donor eggs. It is a safe and reliable fertility treatment with high pregnancy rates.
Oocyte donation is supported by the Spanish Law on Assisted Reproduction, which preserves the identity of the donors and that of the future baby. Many families are concerned about the donor selection process. At IVF-Life, we have established advanced protocols to select the most suitable donor for each family.
We also perform a detailed medical examination, so that we can accurately evaluate which technique is the most suitable for each patient. The quality of the laboratory and the advanced technologies applied in each technique, as well as the ability to provide a customised treatment according to the needs of each patient, are fundamental to the success of the process.
With this fertility treatment, the duration of the treatment is shorter and emotional and financial strain can be minimised. Embryo donation makes it possible to adopt high-quality embryos donated by other patients who have already fulfilled their dream of starting a family.
Today, it is possible to devitrify embryos with a survival rate of almost 100%. Embryo adoption has therefore become an effective reproductive solution for patients who wish to have access to quality embryos without undergoing ovarian stimulation.
The importance of epigenetics in embryonic development
As mentioned above, epigenetics acts as a bridge between genes and the environment. In other words, the environment can cause certain changes in the gene function – without modifying the DNA sequence – causing, among other things, certain traits to manifest themselves rather than others. These changes can occur throughout our entire lives, including embryonic development in the womb.
The different assisted reproduction techniques offered at IVF-Life are an opportunity for many couples suffering from infertility or a high risk of passing on genetic disorders to have healthy children. However, there is always the concern that any of these actions may have unintended consequences for the children. That is why epigenetic modifications will be the signals to determine which genes are expressed in which cells and that a correct embryonic development takes place.