Worming our way to eggcellent results

3 minute read

Reading too much into animal studies is risky business. But fun.

On the mighty platform of wisdom that Twitter still somehow is, there is an account dedicated to “the world’s hardest working little scientist”.  

Run by Aussie scientist Dr James Heathers, @justsaysinmice emphasises that it can be a dangerous thing to assume the outcomes from animal studies will be replicated in humans. 

This caveat is even more important when it comes to non-mammals.  

Nevertheless, this Back Page correspondent is going to risk it, because I enjoy living on the edge.  

Researchers from Northwestern University in Chicago have discovered that giving roundworms and fruit flies antidepressants seems to result in them producing healthier eggs, in a creepy-crawly version of happy wife, happy life. 

Published in Developmental Biology, the study authors exposed aging roundworms to SSRIs fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa) and zimelidine at concentrations comparable to those used to treat anxiety and depression in humans.  

They found that exposure to SSRIs decreased embryonic death and chromosomal abnormalities in surviving offspring by more than twofold. Egg cells also looked younger and healthier, appearing round and plump rather than tiny and misshapen, which is common with ageing. 

Suitably amazed by their own results, the researchers replicated the process in fruit flies and got the same outcomes. 

In earlier research, Professor Ruvinsky and his team exposed female roundworms to male pheromones, which slowed the ageing of egg cells to result in healthier offspring. 

When female roundworms sensed the male pheromones, they shifted their energy and resources away from their overall body health and toward increasing reproductive health.  

“The pheromone coaxes the female into sending help to her eggs and shortchanging the rest of her body,” Ruvinsky said. “It’s not all or nothing; it’s shifting the balance.” 

In the new study, Ruvinsky and his team decided to remove male pheromones from the equation entirely. 

What that all says about the possibilities for human infertility is where you need to draw that incredibly long bow, but the lead author Professor Ilya Ruvinsky has his hopes. 

“There is still a great distance between this new finding and the fertility clinic,” he said. “But the more we study the reproductive system, the better we understand it and the more opportunities we have for developing practical interventions. 

“This neuronal system does more or less the same thing in various animals,” said Professor Ruvinsky. 

“More serotonin in the brain causes animals to focus on food instead of exploring their surroundings. That’s true for mammals, flies and worms. We might not be able to widen the fertility window to 60 years. But even if we could add a year or two to a person’s fertility window, that would make a big difference.” 

But let us not forget the wisdom of the world’s hardest working little scientist. 

In worms. And in fruit flies. Time will tell. 

Sending story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au guarantees progression to phase I clinical studies.   

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