Sperm banking ‘should be free on the NHS’ to reduce risks of genetic disease

Sperm banking should be offered free to all young men in an effort to reduce the risks associated with delayed fatherhood, a new paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics proposes.

This radical initiative has been suggested by Dr Kevin Smith – a bioethicist at Abertay University – in light of the emerging finding that paternal age is strongly linked to an increased incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia in subsequent generations.

Although the biology of autism and schizophrenia is still poorly understood, the data that have become available since the arrival of modern genetic sequencing methods show unequivocally that de novo (new) mutations – those that are not present in the father’s own genome but that occur in his sperm – can be an important risk factor for such conditions.

These mutations become more frequent with age and, coupled with the current trend towards later fatherhood in western societies, mean that many more children will be affected by genetic disorders in the years to come.

Indeed, some scientists believe that – over time – there will be a substantial reduction in human fitness because, unlike most forms of prenatal damage, the de novo mutations in sperm have the potential to accumulate over several generations.

From both an ethical and evolutionary perspective, Dr Smith states that early fatherhood would be the best way to reduce the risks of this phenomenon – known as the Paternal Age Effect.

However, due to the stigma attached to teenage parents – and in light of the many benefits that are associated with delayed parenthood – he suggests that the most immediate and practical solution is for all young men to be given the option to bank their sperm at the age of 18.

He explains:

“With any new scientific discovery, we must always consider the ethical implications in order to work out what society should or should not do in relation to the new knowledge that has been gained. The recent debate around three-parent families is a case in point, and paternal age is no different.

“We know, for instance, that there is a strong correlation between paternal age and new mutations occurring in the stem cells from which sperm are derived.

“These mutations occur deep down at the molecular level and can be as subtle as individual letters of a person’s genetic alphabet changing, or small parts of a gene being omitted or duplicated.

“This makes them very different from the genetic anomalies that are associated with maternal ageing – such as those that cause Down’s Syndrome where an entire extra chromosome, which encodes thousands of genes, is present.

“The de novo mutations in sperm aren’t usually detectable prior to birth in the way that Down’s Syndrome can be so, until recently, we knew very little about how frequently they occur.

“A number of recent modern genetic sequencing studies, however, have shown that a surprisingly high level of these new mutations occur in each and every new generation – and that the older the father gets, the more mutations there are.

“While most forms of prenatal damage primarily affect only a single generation, these types of deleterious de novo mutations have the potential to create medical problems in future generations, which suggests that extra weight should be attached to the importance of paternal age.

“If we truly want to prevent future generations suffering from the preventable diseases associated with the Paternal Age Effect, we need to start thinking about how to reduce the risks sooner rather than later.”

In the paper, Dr Smith goes on to raise and answer a number of other ethical points, both in respect of individual procreative decisions and societal responsibilities:

“If you’re a man and you know there’s a risk that your age will increase the chances of your child having a genetic disorder, you may want to know what the best age for you to have children at is in order to reduce the risk of a genetic disorder developing in your offspring.

“From the evidence that has come to light over the past few years it is clear that earlier fatherhood is desirable in terms of maximising genetic integrity.

“However the reality is, of course, far more complex, and in establishing the ‘best’ age to become a father other considerations beyond genetic concerns need to be taken into account – the stigma of teenage pregnancy needs to be contended with, for example, and there are many advantages to being an older parent, such as increased financial stability and life experience.

“So we need to find a balance and, although the sperm banking option may seem fairly radical, in principle it is quite simple.”

Dr Smith asserts that ethically, there are no obstacles to its implementation: reliable artificial insemination and sperm storage facilities already exist, sperm can be stored successfully ad infinitum, and can be used at any time in life – all that is required is an accompanying public health campaign.

He concludes:

“Although it would require a change in what we as society currently think is acceptable, this could easily be solved with a public health campaign. These have been successful in the past – for example where the link between smoking and low birthweight was established.

“The risks associated with delayed fatherhood are not at present widely known and, from an ethical perspective, those considering parenthood must be made aware of these risks so that they can make a properly informed decision.

“Coupled with the sperm banking option – which could be made freely available through the NHS – this is the best way to reduce the risks of disease associated with de novo mutations for future generations.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

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World-first as fingerprints taken from golden eagle feathers and eggs

Fingerprint on a red kite feather

Fingerprint on a red kite feather

Forensic scientists at Abertay University have identified the most efficient way of recovering fingerprints from the feathers and eggs of birds of prey, publishing the world’s first academic research paper on the subject.

Although there has been anecdotal evidence of fingerprints being recovered from feathers before, this is the first time that a tried and tested method looking specifically at birds of prey has been established and the results published.

In the UK all wild birds, their nests and their eggs are protected by law. However, wildlife crime is on the rise: since 2006, 2,578 incidents of bird crime involving or targeting wild birds of prey have been reported to the RSPB.

Shooting, poisoning and trapping are the most frequent methods used.

Additionally – despite the illegal collection of the eggs of birds of prey being in decline – the practice continues.

Although there is a perception among the general public that fingermarks are being superseded by DNA, the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology reports that they still account for more identifications overall and show no signs of being phased from use.

Indeed, when it comes to wildlife crime, they may actually be the main link between the suspect and the crime.

Golden eagle egg fingerprint

Fingerprint on a golden eagle egg

Dennis Gentles – a former scenes of crime officer and forensic scientist who is now a lecturer in forensic science at Abertay – explains:

“There are some surfaces where recovering fingerprints remains elusive – human and animal skin, for example. And, until now, feathers were on that list.

“We had heard anecdotally that it had been achieved, and were keen to see if we could develop a method that produced consistent results and could be used by the police in an investigation.

“So, what we have done is establish which fingerprint powders would be most effective at developing fingermarks on the flight feathers of birds of prey.

“It had not been established which of the many different fingerprint powders available would work before and, although they would have been examined using one form of fingerprint development, there was always a risk of damaging the evidence and, as a consequence, wasting time and effort.

“Now, if the police examine a discarded bird of prey for fingerprints following our guidelines, any fingermarks that have been left there will become visible.

“If a fingermark shows up, it is proof that the bird has been handled, and suggests that it was discarded on someone else’s land as the perpetrator tried to get rid of the carcass.

“Even if they don’t manage to recover an identifiable fingermark, the presence of the mark means that they know exactly where to focus their attention to swab for DNA and that this particular bird of prey had been handled by a human.

“So we hope that this research will help the police in their endeavours to bring those guilty of wildlife crime to justice. They will now be able to recover more evidence – and it will be evidence that could potentially link a suspect to the crime.”

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland, welcomed this research:

“Since 1994, almost 750 protected birds of prey have been confirmed as being the victims of illegal poisoning, shooting or trapping in Scotland. This has included some of our rarest breeding species like golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites whose populations continue to be threatened by illegal killing.

“While government laboratory testing has made it relatively straightforward to identify the cause of death of the victims in many cases, identifying the perpetrator of offences that often take place in some of the remotest areas of our countryside continues to be very difficult.

“Although there has been a reduction in the number of cases of illegal egg collection, the practice still exists, and there is evidence that illegal egg collectors are now increasingly operating abroad.

“This work carried out by Abertay University is a great step forward in the development of forensic techniques and can only assist in the fight against those who threaten some of our most iconic raptors.”

A total of six species of bird of prey feathers (kestrel, sparrowhawk, buzzard, red kite, golden eagle and white-tailed eagle) and seven species of bird of prey eggs (kestrel, sparrowhawk, golden eagle, goshawk, tawny owl, barn owl and long-eared owl) were examined in this research.

The results showed that red and green magnetic fluorescent powders were the most successful at recovering fingerprints from the feathers.

The microscopic weave structure of a feather has been likened to that of fine weave fabrics such as nylon.  The best prints were achieved on feathers with a finer weave, such as the red kite and buzzard.

Black magnetic powder was the most successful at recovering fingermarks from eggs.

Full details of the methods used are in the research paper, which has been published in the journal Science & Justice.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • The University was granted a license to be in possession of the eggs by – and received funding from – Scottish Natural Heritage.
  • The eagle feathers and eggs were provided by a local falconer. All other feathers and eggs were provided by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and a local museum.
  • Due to the remote location of the illegal shooting, poisoning and trapping of birds of prey, the RSPB believe that reported incidents represent a fraction of the actual number.
  • Operation Easter – a UK-wide campaign run by the police and supported by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and the RSPB – is run every year in an effort to crack down on the crime of illegal egg collection.

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Revolutionary shift in treating mental health problems

An innovative new way of assessing a person’s recovery from mental health problems has been developed by the mental health charity Penumbra and Abertay University.

Unlike most assessments which contain long lists of questions, I.ROC – the Individual Recovery Outcomes Counter – is a colourful little booklet full of cheerful graphics.

I.ROC materials developed by Penumbra_01

I.ROC materials

Its innovation lies in the fact that it measures recovery, rather than symptoms and level of illness – the focus of most existing questionnaires.

Recovery is the ability to live a meaningful and fulfilling life in spite of mental illness, and I.ROC measures this by asking just 12 questions which focus on areas of people’s lives that are known to have an impact on mental health and wellbeing.

These include how much control a person has over decisions that affect them, how much they value and respect themselves, and how much hope they have for the future.

Every three months, each of these 12 indicators of wellbeing is rated by the user on a scale of one (never) to six (always), and plotted onto the I.ROC chart.

I.ROC

The I.ROC chart

When the plotted dots are joined together, it gives that person an instant, visual appraisal of their wellbeing and shows them where they can make small, practical changes in their lives that will, over time, add up to sustained and measurable improvements.

Mandy McLernon, Support Manager at Penumbra’s Angus Nova Project in Arbroath, explains how it works in practice:

“Although it can just look like a piece of paper with some lines on it at first, the beauty of I.ROC is that the first one you do is just your baseline so, when you come to fill in your second and third one, you can see – right there in front of your eyes – that you have slowly but surely been making improvements.

“If you’ve scored just a one for something like your social network and how much you take part in community activities, then you can sit down with your support worker and think of ways that you could improve that score.

“The aim isn’t to make a giant leap from a one to a six overnight, but by getting someone to think to themselves ‘how could I get from a one to a two?’ they begin to make small, positive changes in their lives that not only improve their mental health because they’re doing them, but also improve their feelings of self-worth and pride in who they are as a person in and of themselves.

“These feelings of achievement and accomplishment can do wonders for a person’s self-esteem – something that is often lacking in people going through mental health difficulties. People with mental health issues often find it hard to monitor their feelings, but because I.ROC is so visual, it really helps people keep on top of things.”

Mandy McLernon and Robin Ross_03

Mandy McLernon and Robin Ross doing Robin’s I.ROC

I.ROC has been created from the bottom up, in close collaboration with those experiencing mental health difficulties and those who support them – the first time the experiences of the people who actually use such tools has been taken into consideration in their development.

This new approach means that the people who use Penumbra’s services are turning from passive recipients of care into experts in their own wellbeing and recovery – a radical and revolutionary shift away from the traditional medical model.

Robin Ion – Head of the Division of Mental Health Nursing at Abertay University, who was involved in validating I.ROC – explains:

“In the past, and in many existing mental health services, there was a focus on cure and not recovery.

“The biological model focusses almost exclusively on treating mental health problems with medication, and there is very little attention given to helping the person to develop strategies for coping with what they are experiencing and to live a good life with or without these experiences.

“But living a meaningful and fulfilling life in spite of mental distress is what recovery is all about – and this is what I.ROC helps people to achieve.

“By looking at the individual in the round, it builds up a picture of everything that impacts on their mental health, both good and bad. It recognises the positives, but also helps identify the areas they need to work on or get help with so that they can improve their own wellbeing. With I.ROC’s help, people learn to cope, and also begin to live fulfilling lives again.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

Case Study

Robin Ross

Robin first came to Penumbra two years ago, after finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder after many years of mental health problems.

Having used many mental health assessments in the past which made little difference to his life, the changes that I.ROC has brought about have been exponential, as he explains:

“When I first came to Penumbra, I was in a very bad way. I had suffered from depression for many years, but had only relatively recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And it was hard coming to terms with that diagnosis because there’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health, and I felt ashamed and guilty because I had a mental health problem.

“I’m a trained psychiatric nurse, and when I started out, there was no concept of ‘recovery’ – that you could live a meaningful and fulfilling life at the same time as having a mental illness. It was just accepted that you would always be ill and that you would get progressively worse as time went by. So I really had no hope until I came to Penumbra and was introduced to the idea that it would actually be possible to improve my situation.

“And I.ROC has been central to my recovery. When I look at my first I.ROC I did two years ago, and compare it to my most recent one, I can hardly believe how far I’ve come. My life was so small back then – you can see that in my chart. I had very low scores for things like my personal and social networks – I had very few friends, I didn’t feel in control of my life, I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel happy, and I was really isolating myself because I had such low self-esteem.

“But that’s why I.ROC is so effective – it shows you at a glance where you need to address things. You take it home and look at it and think, ‘wow, there are actually things I could do to get myself higher scores in these areas I’m doing badly in.’ And that’s a really empowering feeling. So, rather than simply taking the pills the doctor prescribes you and believing that that’s all you can do for yourself, your support worker helps you to think of things you could do yourself to improve your own wellbeing. For me, it was starting up some hobbies – I went to Tai Chi at first, then creative writing lessons and eventually took up guitar lessons as well. I filled my life with things I enjoyed, little by little, and it has completely turned my life around!

“It wasn’t easy though, and it didn’t happen overnight. But that’s the point of I.ROC – it builds you week after week, month after month, into a more rounded person. It lets you know where you are today and that you can improve on that. You can look at your chart and think ‘well, today I want to score a two instead of a one, so what can I do to improve it a little?’

“It’s hard work, but you have to remember that to get through a mental health issue takes real strength. You need to count yourself lucky that you know you’ve got a mental health issue, because then you can work on your recovery.

“It’s amazing to look back at that first I.ROC I did and to see just how much power I had lost in my life. But equally amazing to see how different my life is now. That’s one of the main things that I.ROC has helped me to work on – how to feel empowered and like I am actually living my life, rather than my disorder. I had really just given myself over to the care of others before I came to Penumbra, and didn’t realise that I had a role to play in my own care. Seeing the progress I’ve made on my journey of recovery through I.ROC is incredible. I am engaged in my own care now, and it is truly empowering to know that.”

Notes to Editors:

Abertay University specialises in Mental Health Nursing, and intends to develop a Centre for Excellence in Mental Health Nursing over the next few years.

Penumbra is a mental health charity based in Scotland, providing a wide range of services which offer hope and practical steps towards recovery – the ability to live a meaningful and fulfilling live in the presence or absence of any mental health problems. The organisation campaigns to influence national and local government policy, and to increase public knowledge and understanding about mental ill health.

Peer-reviewed research has shown that I.ROC is a valid, robust and reliable measure of recovery.

I.ROC is now used routinely within Penumbra and a number of other organisations across the UK. There has also been some international interest which may lead to I.ROC being translated into other languages.

The 12 indicators of wellbeing are:

  • Mental Health
  • Life Skills
  • Safety and Comfort
  • Exercise and Activity
  • Physical Health
  • Purpose and Direction
  • Personal Network
  • Social Network
  • Valuing Myself
  • Participation and Control
  • Self Management
  • Hope for the Future

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Being bilingual does NOT make you smarter

The widely held belief that being bilingual makes you smarter is being challenged by psychologists in a newly published paper.

Writing in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, a group of language experts from Abertay University describe how they began – quite unintentionally – to unravel one of current psychology’s big myths: that being bilingual makes you smarter.

Professor Vera Kempe and her colleagues began their latest research assuming – like everyone else – that a cognitive advantage in bilinguals was an established fact.

Based on this assumption, they wanted to see whether there was a similar cognitive advantage to speaking two dialects – something that had not been looked at before.

To find out, they compared cognitive control in a group of people who switch between speaking the very distinctive Dundonian dialect and Standard Scottish English, with cognitive control in two other groups: those who speak two languages, and those who speak only one.

To their great surprise, their research produced some wholly unexpected results, contradicting everything they thought they knew: the bilingual control groups performed no better in the cognitive task than those who spoke only one language and those who spoke in a dialect.

There were no differences whatsoever.

Professor Kempe explains why this is an important finding:

“When we started our research, we were convinced – like everybody else – that there was an advantage to being bilingual, but when we carried out our analysis, we were astonished by the results.

“Although we had replicated the original study to the letter, we found no benefit in either of our bilingual groups; neither in the Gaelic-English bilinguals, nor the bilinguals speaking a variety of Asian languages.

“At first we were stumped. How could this be? How could we have failed to find an effect, when we knew there was supposed to be one?

“When we began to dig deeper, we discovered that – far from being an anomaly – our study is actually one in a now growing number of studies that fail to find that bilingualism makes you smarter.

“In other words, there is actually no conclusive evidence that bilingualism makes you smarter.”

Referring to something called ‘publication bias’ – where a study only gets published if an effect is found – the authors point out that, at present, it is misleading for educational policy recommendations to be based on the belief that learning languages makes you smarter when it is not yet clear whether this is true.

Publication bias is a long-standing problem, and is one of the main causes for this myth about bilingualism having been created.

Professor Kempe continues:

“Saying that ‘some scientists carried out a study, but didn’t find anything’, doesn’t make for a very good story – and that is where the problem lies.

“There is so much pressure to demonstrate novelty and real-life impact that it has sometimes been difficult for scientists to get studies published if they haven’t found something startling and newsworthy.

“Other factors that come with being bilingual – like being an immigrant or coming from a culture which values mentally challenging activities – may be responsible for a benefit in some instances.

“Psychologists are working hard to find out whether studying more languages and knowing them well can really make a difference to mental agility, but so far we simply do not have conclusive evidence.

“What we can do in the meanwhile, though, is to encourage everybody – especially young people – to learn languages not based on the selfish motive of boosting individual brain power, but because knowing languages affords us the opportunity to connect with different people from different backgrounds and cultures.

“Perhaps being able to see the world from another point of view is the most beneficial and mind-enhancing effect that comes with learning languages.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

  • Vera Kempe is Professor of the Psychology of Language Learning at Abertay University. Born in Russia and brought up in the former East Berlin in Germany, Professor Kempe is fluent in Russian, German and English.
  • This research was carried out by PhD student Neil Kirk. The paper is entitled ‘No evidence for reduced Simon cost in elderly bilinguals and bidialectals’.
  • The cognitive test that was used is known as the Simon task, which enables psychologists to examine inhibitory control.

Originally it was proposed that bilingualism helps suppress irrelevant information – needed, for example, when trying to ignore the intrusively loud conversations of fellow train passengers while attempting to read your newspaper.

Since bilinguals constantly have to suppress one language while using the other, it was assumed that over time they get better at suppressing irrelevant information in general, not just in the context of using language.

Neil’s research – and that of many others – has shown that this is, in fact, not an established fact after all and that further research is needed before claims that being bilingual makes you smarter can be made.

  • The average age of the 80 participants in this study was 70. The ages ranged from 60 to 89 years.

16 bilingual participants were speakers of Gaelic and Standard Scottish English. They were recruited from the Western Isles and the West coast of Scotland.

16 bilinguals were speakers of English and either Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malay, Punjabi or Urdu who had immigrated to the UK before the age of 35. They were recruited from London and Dundee.

16 bidialectals were speakers and regular users of Standard Scottish English and Dundonian. They were recruited from Dundee.

16 monodialectals spoke Standard Scottish English, but had regular exposure to, and could understand (but did not use) the Dundonian dialect. They were recruited from Dundee.

16 monolinguals were speakers of Anglo-English, spoken in the South of England. They were recruited from different parts of England and Scotland.

 

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OAPs get fit with HIT

The health of OAPs can be dramatically improved with high-intensity training (HIT), a new study has shown.

Scientists at Abertay University, who specialise in exercise and the ageing process, put a group of pensioners through the exercise regime – a population group on which HIT had never been tested before.

They found that – in just six weeks – doing one minute of exercise twice a week not only significantly increased physical fitness and functional ability (the ability to get up out of a chair or carry shopping), but also significantly reduced blood pressure – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

These discoveries have important implications.

Currently, more than 10 million people in the UK are aged over 65, with this figure set to double in the next 30 years.

As people get older, muscles get weaker and smaller, and poor muscle function is a major health concern in the elderly.

The older population is also at greater risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes and – together with frailty – these health issues cost the NHS in the region of £30 billion a year.

Although it is well-known that exercise can help reduce the effects of these age-related declines and can improve quality of life, the majority of older people find it difficult to meet the current exercise guidelines.

These consist of performing moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity – such as fast walking or running – several days per week.

Lack of time is reported as the most common barrier to meeting these guidelines, and the research team at Abertay believes that HIT offers an alternative to the current, unrealistic, recommendations.

Dr John Babraj explains:

“The ageing process is generally looked on quite negatively by society, with everyone knowing that you find it more difficult to carry out day-to-day activities like standing up from your chair, or carrying your shopping, as you get older.

“What we found with this study – which involves doing just one minute of exercise twice week – is that it not only improved the participants’ physical health and ability to do these things, but also their perceptions of their own ability to engage in physical activity. They enjoyed it, were delighted with the effects it had on their health and, on top of that, felt they could fit it into their lives, which is something they aren’t able to do with current exercise recommendations.

“If people aren’t meeting the targets, we need to find ways to work with them when it comes to exercise, rather than just persisting with something that isn’t working. High-intensity training is an achievable alternative that could make a real difference to people’s health and their quality of life.

“With the current increase in the number of retired people, it is important that we find new ways to keep them active that have a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.

“There is eight years of evidence which shows that HIT has a significant impact on obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and this study adds to that, showing that it is something that older people can benefit from too.”

In the study participants were divided into two groups, with one acting as a control and the other required to take part in two sessions of high-intensity training per week.

Each session consisted of 6-second all-out sprints on an exercise bike, with each participant fitted with a heart rate monitor throughout.

The number of sprints in each session was progressively increased over the course of the trial from 6 x 6-second sprints to 10 x 6-second sprints.

A minimum of one minute recovery time was allowed between each sprint, and participants were not allowed to start sprinting again until their heart rate had gone back down to below 120bpm.

Dr Babraj concludes:

“When it comes to the sprints, you don’t have to go at the speed of someone like Usain Bolt. As long as you are putting in your maximal effort – whatever speed that happens to be – it will improve your health.

“However, as with any type of exercise, it is important to consult with your doctor before you begin doing HIT, in case there are any underlying health issues.”

The research team are always keen to hear from people who would like to take part in their studies. Anyone wishing to volunteer or find out more can email HIT@abertay.ac.uk.

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

  • The paper – entitled ‘Extremely short duration high-intensity training substantially improves the physical function and self-reported health status of an elderly population‘ – is published in the latest edition of The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
  • Dr John Babraj is a Lecturer in Exercise Physiology at Abertay University. He published the first major paper demonstrating that HIT improves insulin sensitivity (the ability of insulin to clear glucose from the bloodstream) and aerobic fitness in sedentary people.
  • The current exercise guidelines for older people consist of performing moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity – such as fast walking or running – for at least 30 minutes, five days per week.
  • The fourteen, untrained individuals in this study reported at the time of signing up to take part that they had done no regular exercise during the previous 12 months. A health check established that they were all healthy – taking no prescribed medications – and all had the approval of their doctors to start exercising.

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Scientists grow tiny beating human hearts to give them heart disease and find a cure

Miniature human hearts that beat of their own accord are being grown by scientists at Abertay University.

They have been developed specifically to find a cure for heart hypertrophy – a form of heart disease that can lead to sudden death.

Made from stem cells, the tiny hearts are just 1mm in diameter and contract at around 30 beats per minute.

Although healthy to begin with, the scientists are using chemicals to simulate the physiological conditions that will make them become hypertrophic – enlarged, due to abnormal growth of the cells that make up the heart (cardiomyocytes).

Once diseased, the hearts are then treated with newly developed medications to see if they can prevent the damage from occurring.

Hypertrophic cardiomyocyte

Hypertrophic cardiomyocyte

Professor Nikolai Zhelev, who is leading this research, explains:

“Although human hearts have been grown in labs before, this is the first time it has ever been possible to induce disease in them.

“Heart hypertrophy can be hereditary, can be caused by diseases such as diabetes, or can be caused by doing too much strenuous exercise.

“The disease causes the heart muscle to thicken and stiffen, and makes it harder for the heart to pump blood around the body.

“In some people, a life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm will develop, and this is the most common cause of sudden death in young people.

“Although there are treatments, these only help to control the symptoms, and there is no known cure at the moment.”

Hypertrophic cardiomyocyte with DNA and drug target highlighted

Hypertrophic cardiomyocyte with DNA and drug target highlighted

However, the miniature hearts being grown in Professor Zhelev’s lab could help change that.

Using biosensors, Professor Zhelev has been able to label specific molecules within the miniature hearts to see where they are going – which pathway they follow.

By establishing which molecules cause the hearts to become hypertrophic, he has been able to target drugs at these molecules and prevent them from going down the path they would usually take, and prevent them from becoming hypertrophic.

He continues:

“We’ve tested a number of different compounds on these hearts – some of them entirely new ones that haven’t been tested in humans yet, which is why we’re testing them on these hearts we’ve grown in the lab.

“One of these compounds, however, is a drug that we have developed which has just completed phase-two clinical trials in cancer patients and has had very positive results.

“Although heart cells are the only ones in the body that will never get cancer, we noticed that the pathways the molecules in hypertrophic hearts follow are similar to those followed by molecules in cancerous cells, so we thought testing this new drug on these hearts might have the same positive effect. And this has certainly proved to be the case.

“Some of the compounds we’ve tested have had undesirable effects – such as increasing the number of beats the hearts do per minute and making them stop beating – but others, such as the new cancer drug that is in development, have managed to protect the hearts and prevent them from becoming hypertrophic.

“We are still testing new drugs using this system to find new compounds with better efficiency and fewer side-effects.

“Once we know exactly which compounds work and which don’t we’ll begin developing new drugs which will then undergo further tests, before eventually being trialled in humans.

“Although there is still a long way to go before the drugs become available commercially, we are extremely hopeful that we will one day be able to stop heart hypertrophy from developing in those at risk of the disease.”

To move the experiments further along, Professor Zhelev has begun working with Professor Jim Bown – a systems biologist who uses computer models and games technology to visualise cell behaviour.

He has started taking the data from Professor Zhelev’s experiments to create computer models that will predict how the cells are likely to grow.

This means that, rather than merely looking at a set of mathematical equations, Professor Zhelev will be able to see how the cells he is growing are likely to develop over time and how they will be affected by a particular drug.

Working with partners at St Andrews and Edinburgh universities, Professor Bown has already shown that this technology can inform experiments in cancer.

This research with heart hypertrophy is an exciting new development and the model could, eventually, be used to help find cures and preventative treatments for other types of diseases as well.

Professor Bown explains:

“By creating interactive models and interactive animations which visualise cell growth, we are able to simulate what would happen if different doses and combinations of drugs are applied to cancerous cells, and to predict how they will affect cell growth.

“Because the signalling pathways in cancer cells and hypertrophic heart cells are so similar, we’ve been able to adapt this technology and apply it to cardiomyocytes.

“The way this will work is by taking information about how the cells grow from Nikolai initially, building models based on that data and making suggestions to him about which experiments to try out next. So we’re carrying out a mix of experimental and theoretical biology here, using complex new technology to help us better understand the systems we’re working with.

“Ultimately, the aim is to reduce the number of wet-lab experiments that Nikolai needs to do in order to find the drugs that are most likely to prevent heart hypertrophy from developing.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

Professor Nikolai Zhelev is a cancer biologist and Professor of Medical Biotechnology at Abertay University, where he is also Director of the Centre for Molecular Cellular Biosensor Research (CMCBR).

He will present this research for the first time as a plenary talk at the 5th World Congress on Biotechnology in Valencia, Spain, on Thursday, June 26 at 2.45pm.

Professor Jim Bown is a computer scientist, who uses computational models to understand complex biological phenomena.

He is Professor of Systems Biology at Abertay University, where he is Co-Director of the Scottish Informatics, Mathematics, Biology and Statistics (SIMBIOS) Centre.

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Diabetes prevented with just two minutes’ exercise

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented by doing just two sessions of high-intensity training (HIT) a week, new research published in the journal Biology has shown.

In the paper, the authors from Abertay University state that HIT not only reduces the risk of disease, but is also just as effective at doing so as the exercise guidelines currently recommended by the UK Government.

These state that five, 30-minute sessions of exercise should be carried out each week – something that very few people manage to achieve.

The most common reason cited for this is lack of time, and the research team behind this latest study believe that HIT is the perfect way for people who are time-poor to improve their health.

In the study, overweight adults – a group at high-risk of developing diabetes – took part in a HIT regime for a period of eight weeks.

This involved completing twice-weekly sprints on an exercise bike, with each sprint lasting just six seconds.

10 sprints were completed in total during each session, amounting to just two minutes of exercise per week.

This short, but high-intensity, regime was enough to significantly improve cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity – the body’s ability to clear glucose from the bloodstream – in the participants, and is the first time that so little exercise has been shown to have such significant health benefits.

Previous research by the same team had shown that three HIT sessions a week were required, but this study has eclipsed these results by showing that the same can be achieved with just two.

Dr John Babraj – who heads up the high-intensity training research team at Abertay University – explains:

“With this study, we investigated the benefits of high-intensity training (HIT) in a population group known to be at risk of developing diabetes: overweight, middle-aged adults.

“We found that not only does HIT reduce the risk of them developing the disease, but also that the regime needs to be performed only twice a week in order for them to reap the benefits. And you don’t have to be able to go at the speed of Usain Bolt when you’re sprinting. As long as you are putting your maximal effort into the sprints, it will improve your health.

“And this is the beauty of high-intensity training: it is quick to do and it is effective. Although it is well-established that exercise is a powerful therapy for the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes, only 40 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women in the UK achieve the recommended 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on five days of the week.

“Lack of time to exercise, due to work or family commitments, is cited as the most common barrier to participation, so high-intensity training offers a really effective solution to this problem and has the added benefit of reducing disease risk which activities such as walking – even if done five days a week for 30 minutes – don’t offer.

“There is a clear relationship between the intensity of exercise and the magnitude of health improvement, so it is only through these short, high-intensity sprints that health improvements can be seen.”

ENDS

For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron M: 07972172158 E: k.cameron@abertay.ac.uk

Notes to editors:

  • Abertay is the only university in Scotland where research into HIT is carried ou
  • Dr John Babraj published the first major paper demonstrating that HIT improves insulin sensitivity (the ability of insulin to clear glucose from the bloodstream) and aerobic fitness in sedentary young people.
  • According to Diabetes UK, Since 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has increased from 1.4 million to 2.9 million. By 2025 it is estimated that five million people will have diabetes. Most of these cases will be Type 2 diabetes, because of our ageing population and rapidly rising numbers of overweight and obese people.

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