Scientists Getting Closer To Find A Key To Older Moms’ Birth Defect Risk

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New research might offer clues for lowering the odds of miscarriage and Down syndrome.

It’s long been known that pregnancy in older moms carries an increased risk of miscarriage and fetal birth defects.

As a woman enters her thirties, the risk of having a pregnancy with chromosomal errors begins to rise. By the time she’s in her early 40s, the odds are jaw-dropping: One in three pregnant women will have a miscarriage or a Down syndrome pregnancy. This is known as the “maternal age effect”.

High incidence of mistakes in chromosome segregation occurs after 30s.

For women in their 30s and beyond, the probability of a pregnancy that results in a miscarriage or a Down syndrome pregnancy is staggering with the risk increasing to 1 in 3 by the time a woman reaches her early 40s. This results wıth the egg having too many or too few chromosomes.

The hypothesis about the correlation of the possible damage and the maternal age was first put forward over 20 years ago.

Oxygen molecules that have picked up an extra electron become very reactive and they react with other proteins and other molecules in the cell and it can damage them. This sort of oxidative damage is known to increase with age. The question why this happens so much more frequently with older moms was hypothesized, but never proven.

Associate Professor from Dartmouth University Sharon Bickel and her students have made a breakthrough in the understanding of age-related genetic anomalies that can lead to miscarriages and Down syndrome.

Bickel and her colleagues devised a way to test this hypothesis with fruit flies. They decreased the amount of proteins that typically neutralize these reactive oxygen species as a means of increasing the presence of these highly damaging molecules in a female fruit fly. When they examined the fly’s offspring, they saw a significant increase in mistakes during cell segregation. 

Bickel says; “This is the first evidence in a living organism that these reactive oxygen species can cause problems in segregation”

And while this research is very preliminary, it does provide an avenue for further research.

“What’s more exciting is the possibility that if we know what’s causing the problem, if it’s reaction oxygen species, then there may be ways to slow down that damage process,” says Bickel. She adds a change in diet might be one way to do that and the better they understand the cause, the likelier they are to find solutions.

That could have profound implications for the growing number of women who want to wait to have babies.

While trisomy treatments are still a long way off, these and other basic research findings are aiding progress toward them.

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