This Aspect of a Father's Health Can Increase his Daughter's Breast Cancer Risk

Though those of the mother have been researched, the father’s biometrics are now getting a closer look. 


In our culture historically, fertility was the realm of women. Women are told to watch what they eat, exercise regularly, avoid alcohol, and generally take care of themselves while pregnant, even when trying to conceive. The impact of the father’s health was thought minimal. Due to this, fertility research has focused more on women’s reproductive systems than men’s, as well as the impact of their lifestyle choices on their children. But now, research on the male side of things is starting to pick up, and we are gaining more insight into infertility issues, and even health problems occurring in offspring later on, due to the father’s lifestyle.

Previous studies have shown that a mother’s weight and her diet affect her daughter’s chances of developing breast cancer. Now, a new study finds the same about fathers. A father’s obesity during conception is likely to raise his daughter’s breast cancer risk, researchers have discovered.

According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, obesity in the father alters the gene expression of his sperm, which could increase the risk of breast cancer in daughters. Investigators at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. conducted this study, led by Sonia de Assis, Ph.D.

Breast cancer cells.

Breast cancer is the second most commonly acquired in the U.S., after melanoma. 246,660 women are projected to be diagnosed this year. Risk factors include being over age 55, having a family history of the disease, carrying certain genes or genetic mutations, obesity, alcohol abuse, and more. Now one additional item may be added to the list, a father’s obesity at the time of conception.

Studies on women have revealed that certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking or eating a poor diet, can lead to gene mutations, which may be passed on to her children. Between five to 10% of these mutated genes are inherited. There is also some evidence linking maternal obesity to such mutations, raising the risk of the child developing breast cancer later on. Even so, few studies have looked into the father’s weight and what role it played. De Assis and colleagues had moved in to help close the gap.

Breast cancer causing gene. 

They experimented on laboratory mice. There were two cohorts. One had male mice who were fed a normal diet, the control group. The other had male mice fed an obesity-promoting one. After some time, each were presented with female mice of normal weight for mating.

Soon, the pups were born and matured. Once they did, researchers rated and analyzed the female’s breast tissue. Those pups born to obese fathers developed breast tissue later than their peers, and were more likely to develop breast cancer. The scientists also examined the sperm of obese male mice. Here they found that microRNA (miRNA), molecular strands which regulate gene expression, had been altered. This same alteration was present in the breast tissue of their daughters. Epigenetics is how genes are changed to allow the body to respond better to forces in the environment. But in this case, the alteration does nothing to promote life, just the opposite.

Dr. de Assis said, "This study provides evidence that, in animals, a father's body weight at the time of conception affects both their daughter's body weight, both at birth and in childhood, as well as their risk of breast cancer later in life.” She added that although these were studies conducted on mice, other research has shown that epigenetic changes occur in the sperm of obese men compared to lean ones, giving us reason to believe it may occur in our species too. The next step is to find out whether or not this process takes place in humans. If it does, the ramifications are grave, especially considering the ongoing obesity epidemic occurring worldwide, beginning in the U.S. in 1994.

In ancient Greek mythology it was possible for humans, who committed atrocities against the gods, to become cursed, with their future progeny bearing the burden. Oedipus is an example of this. And in the Old Testament it is written that the sins of the father would be visited upon his children. Gluttony after all is one of the seven deadly sins. Had ancient societies picked up on a biological phenomenon, that certain epigenetic traits are passed down to future generations? It’s an interesting speculation, but nearly impossible to prove, at least, currently.

The takeaway is that, men and women should eat a well-balanced diet and do what they can to maintain a healthy body weight. That’s easier said than done in today’s frenetic world, where convenient and unhealthful food is offered at every turn. Nevertheless, with careful planning it can be done. And now there is more fuel to motivate those wishing to have a child to get healthy. Just remember the benefits don’t only extend to you, but your future children, allowing them a chance at a healthy life.

Want to know more about the risk factors of breast cancer? Click here: 

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
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