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The Fondation Brocher is an essential player in this vital thinking process: one which will help make us aware of the real challenges in using our resources for maximum impact on the health of the people of the world.

 

 

Professor Daniel Wikler, Harvard University

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November 21 - 23, 2017

Parental Responsibility, Epigenetics and DOHaD: Emerging sociotechnical imaginaries of reproduction in the post-genomic age

Place:

Brocher Foundation

Organizers:

Introduction:

The goal of the workshop is to analyse and dissect the emerging notion of ‘epigenetic parental responsibility’. To this purpose, we will explore the potential reconfiguration of reproductive and parental practices operated by studies on epigenetic inheritance, by exploring the normative, historico-epistemological and socio-political dimensions of this knowledge.

“Why your DNA isn’t your destiny”; “Babies born into poverty are damaged forever before birth”; “Mother's diet during pregnancy alters baby's DNA”; “Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children”; “Poisoned Inheritance”; “Bad health habits can affect three generations, study finds”; “Mother’s diet before conception can affect child’s lifelong risk of disease”.

These resounding headlines are only few among the examples of how epigenetic inheritance and developmental programming of health are currently being introduced to the public. It is in fact worth paying attention to the recent and growing popularity of preliminary evidences of epigenetic inheritance (both in animal models and humans), which intersect (DOHaD). In its narrow (and original) interpretation, the DOHaD hypothesis pointed to the fact that the embryo, the foetus and the young infant are under the influence of a constant signalling process from the environment within which they develop. Recent evidences in epigenetics are adding up as to the features of the external environment (from pollutants, to nutrients, etc.) that are “transduced by the mother […] and then act via developmental plasticity to affect the characteristics of the offspring”, thus complementing the DOHaD hypothesis with molecular explanations. Correspondingly, however, the field of epigenetics portraits a broader interpretation of the DOHaD paradigm. New data are in fact accumulating with regard to the epigenetic legacy of acquired phenotypic traits via both paternal and maternal germ line. Epigenetic inheritance takes place when an environmental stimulus (e.g. a toxin, a pollutant, a nutrient, a stressful situation), transduced by the mother (generation F0) affects the fetus’ epigenome (generation F1) and its developing germline cells, thus having long-term consequences also on the fetus’ progeny (generation F2). The same goes through the paternal line when an external stimulus epigenetically affects the sperm of the father (generation F0) and has an effect over his progeny (generation F1). Scant evidences, and controversial hypotheses are also being produced with regard to the possibility that these very same epigenetic traits may be inherited “even in the absence of the initial trigger”; namely, they may be passed forward to a generation that is not affected by the environmental stimulus under study (i.e. generation F3 if we follow the maternal line in the above example, or generation F2 if we follow the paternal line).

The epigenetic programming of the embryo (and the fetus) may be regarded, in light of both of these interpretations, as a crucial step in individual health development. Through the dynamic addition and removal of epigenetic marks on the genome, the combination of the DOHaD hypothesis with knowledge of epigenetic inheritance recasts developmental processes as a crucial time window for durable adaptive changes in the regulation of gene expression that (i) affect both the health of the new-born and the subsequent generations, and (ii) are the result of a legacy that transcends genes. Rather than just focusing on phenotypic traits that are acquired during such critical developmental window (i.e. the first 1000 days of our life), complementing the DOHaD hypothesis with data on epigenetic inheritance shows that innate epigenetic predispositions (from both the paternal and the maternal lineage) may play a decisive role in individual health programming. Evidences of epigenetic inheritance robustly corroborate and expand, in other words, the DOHaD paradigm by showing that the time of development is crucial for our health in adult life, but also for the transmission of epigenetic programming across generations.

The Workshop ‘Parental Responsibility, Epigenetics and DOHaD: Emerging sociotechnical imaginaries of reproduction in the post-genomic age' builds upon the current work of the SNSF-funded project PaRED-Parental Responsibilities, Epigenetics and DOHaD (Decision N°100018_162873/1), which gathers researchers from different domains of biomedical and social sciences grappling with epigenetics and its implications for reproductive, perinatal and paediatric care. Following the work carried out within PaRED, the workshop aims at engaging scholars in the social sciences and humanities to explore the potential of epigenetics and DOHaD to intervene upon public discourses and moral positions related to reproduction, parenting and intergenerational responsibility.

Combining all of these emerging observations appears in fact to inaugurate new rhetorics and values about reproduction and the relationship between different generations. In the coming future, it is likely that parental influences on the health of future generations will acquire a new, molecular and epigenetically-informed meaning. Prima facie, evidences in epigenetics corroborating the DOHaD hypothesis purport that parental influences extend past the moment of conception, and assign a pivotal role to preconception pathways of inheritance of biological predispositions. From effects of parental (and also grandparental) exposures throughout their lifespan, to in utero signalling and transduction of environmental influences, the picture drawn by epigenetics and the DOHaD hypothesis reshapes our biological understanding of reproductive practices. Prospectively, the discourse emerging from this research may redefine how lifestyle choices and environmental hazards, for which parents and grandparents are “responsible”, are likely to yield adverse health outcomes in the offspring.

For these reasons, the general goal of the workshop is to scrutinize what we define as the emerging notion of ‘epigenetic parental responsibility’ from three complementary perspectives. First, the workshop will approach this notion from the viewpoint of a historico-epistemological analysis of ‘inheritance’. This part of the conference will be devoted to the reconstruction of the parallels and ruptures between contemporary uses of this notion, and the developments around the transmission of acquired characters, gene-centrism and evolutionary plasticity that have characterised the recent history of natural sciences. Such a cultural history of inheritance will be instrumental to the identification of the socio-political preconditions behind the use of ‘inheritance’ in its historical development, and consequently will allow illuminating the elements of socio-political creativity that specifically belong to knowledge-production on epigenetic inheritance and developmental programming of health and disease today.

Second, and building upon the genealogies of ‘inheritance’ mentioned above, we will take the shift in the understanding of the plasticity of both disease aetiology and health outcomes promised by epigenetics and DOHaD as partaking to the creation of a sociotechnical imaginary of individual and collective responsibilities to protect one’s epigenome and consequently one’s health for the benefit of future generations. In a nutshell, epigenetic inheritance and DOHaD may (and are already starting to) produce a number of scientific, technological and political developments, which could add an epigenetic dimension to the social imaginary of reproductive practices. From this perspective, we will take the DOHaD hypothesis as envisaging a new relationship between present and future generations, and consequently as instructing political action for national and/or supra-national healthcare systems by demanding change at the level of medical and/or environmental practices and regulations. At the same time, the workshop will also focus on the discursive resources that knowledge of epigenetic inheritance and DOHaD produce for an adjustment of individual behaviours and lifestyles. Epigenetics and DOHaD not only constitute in fact a vision of a number of achievable collective goods (e.g. the reduction of the burden of disease in the population), but also produce a number of goals, meanings, norms and interpretations of the roles that parents should play for their achievement.

Third, the event will probe the idea that the legacy of epigenetic marks may challenge and expand the boundaries of already disputed parental obligations to ‘procreative beneficence’, i.e. the idea that we might have a “moral obligation” (where a choice can be made) to bring to birth the “best” child possible. By shedding a light on the potential harmful consequences that individual unhealthy lifestyles (from birth to reproduction) may have on future generations, knowledge of epigenetic inheritance and DOHaD may leverage new – or expand established– normative claims compelling us to mitigate the risks and threats that our unhealthy behaviours and exposures pose to the wellbeing of those we (will) care for.