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Study Shows Mice Passing Down Drug Benefits To Offspring

A worker holds a white rat at the State Key Laboratory of Biotherapy in Chengdu, China.
China Photos Getty Images
A worker holds a white rat at the State Key Laboratory of Biotherapy in Chengdu, China.

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla were able to improve symptoms of a fatal brain disease in mice, even in offspring not directly treated with any drugs.

The researchers relied on epigenetics, the changes in gene expression brought on by environmental factors like diet, stress, or in this case, a drug. Scientists know parents can pass down those gene expression modifications to children, but the effect is usually associated with bad outcomes.

"The classic example is the Dutch famine at the end of World War II," said Scripps neuroscientist Elizabeth Thomas, co-author of the new study.


Research has shown that pregnant women who starved in German-occupied parts of the Netherlands were more likely to have children susceptible to obesity, diabetes and even schizophrenia.

But for a new study, Thomas and her colleagues were able to produce a positive cross-generational effect. They gave a drug to mice with Huntington's disease, a fatal brain condition.

As expected, these mice responded well to the drug. Disease onset was delayed. And when symptoms did appear, they weren't as severe.

But the researchers also saw improvements in offspring who didn't take the drug at all. They appeared to inherit the drug's benefits through their parents.

"Compared to offspring of parents who were not treated, they did much better," said Thomas.


Huntington's patients have a 50 percent chance of passing the disease down to their children, so any cross-generational improvement is significant. However, Thomas says more research is needed to know if such drugs produce a similar effect in humans.

"Typically, one thinks of these trans-generational effects as being negative," said Thomas. "Our study was really interesting in the fact that we saw beneficial effects."