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Can IVF Affect A Baby's Genes? Yes, But Not For Life

Assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF can affect a baby's gene health, but any changes are largely resolved by adulthood, new research has found. 

Growing up, Bron Venables has always felt "very normal".

The 29-year-old woman from Melbourne was conceived through GIFT -- a less-common form of assisted reproduction technology (ART) where  fertilisation occurs in the woman's fallopian tube.

"Every few years, I'd have some sort of testing ... the fact that I could have been abnormal never really occurred to me," she told 10 daily.

"Now I'm getting older and starting to think about having kids of my own."

IVF involves joining an egg with sperm outside the body before transferring the embryo into a woman's uterus. Image: Getty

Venables was one of 158 Australians conceived through ART who took part in a study led by researchers from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne.

According to the paper, published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, any known epigenetic changes among the ART cohort at birth largely disappear by adulthood -- and researchers say this should be reassuring to families.

More than 13,500 babies were born in Australia following ART treatment in 2016, the latest figures from the UNSW National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Uni (NPESU) show.

Globally, there have been more than seven million such births since 1978.

READ MORE: 'One In Every Classroom': IVF Births At Record High 

READ MORE: Cheaper, Faster IVF Tests To DNA Check Embryo Health

According to MCRI Professor Jane Halliday, assisted conception is linked to adverse early life outcomes, such as a small increased risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and perinatal mortality.

These appear to be due to treatments where embryos are handled or hormones are added, leaving a biological "signature" on several genes that can be measured at birth.

“Given the interventions associated with assisted reproduction technology at the time of conception, there were concerns that epigenetic changes may be taking place, silencing important genes and resulting in a heightened risk of health problems,” she said.

While previous studies have found some epigenetic changes in embryos grown in labs, Halliday's colleague Dr Boris Novakovic said no study has analysed those changes over time.

The world-first study measured the epigenetic profile of 158 people conceived by ART -- both in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and GIFT -- and 75 people conceived naturally. Both IVF and GIFT require medication to stimulate the ovaries to release multiple eggs.

IVF treatment. PHOTO: Getty

Researchers compared participants' newborn heel prick blood spots -- routinely collected at birth -- with their blood sample collected as an adults, aged between 22 and 35.

While they found clear epigenetic changes in the blood samples of those born via ART, these weren't detectable by adulthood.

“Our results are reassuring for families as they suggest that environment and lifestyle experienced from birth can repair any epigenetic deviations associated with fertility treatments," Novakovic said.

READ MORE: 'I Spent $50K On IVF ... And It Failed 

This was, too, reassuring for Venables, as she considers having children of her own.

"I think the big concern is the unknown," she said.

"I don’t know if this is the path I am going to have to take, but if it is, it’s comforting knowing that being conceived by IVF hasn’t made me abnormal in a way that could be passed onto my children." 

Halliday said the study added to researchers' previous findings on the same ART-conceived adults showing no evidence of heart, growth, metabolic or respiratory problems.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au