Sperm mutates after chemo, research shows

Based on recent studies, WSU researchers have discovered long-lasting reproductive effects in cancer patients due to the use of chemotherapy.

Research shows epigenetic mutations in sperm as a result of chemotherapy, which are passed onto the child born from the mutated sperm and has the potential to survive in family lineage.

“Epigenetics are the things around the DNA that are not necessarily part of the DNA,” Michael Skinner, a researcher with the WSU School of Biological Sciences said.

These “things” essentially switch different genes in the DNA sequence on and off, he said, but play no part in the actual genetic code of the organism.

“What happens during chemo is epigenetic changes on the DNA, such as DNA methylation,” he said.

Small methyl groups get attached to the DNA, he said, which chemically alter the epigenetic code of the organism.

The alterations are permanent, he said, meaning that when new sperm are formed from these mutated cells, the mutations are passed onto them.

“This has the potential to influence offspring,” Skinner said.

The children of a chemotherapy patient will be affected by this mutation, meaning they will also produce epigenetically mutated cells, he said.

“This does not mean a cancer patient should not accept chemotherapy,” he said.

Rather, Skinner suggested a male cancer patient should freeze his sperm before treatment and, if he decides to have a child, thaw the sperm and fertilize a woman’s egg that way.

“This circumvents the problem,” he said, “and produces offspring with normal sperm.”

Overall sperm count can also decrease as an effect of chemotherapy, according to the Healthline website.

This infertility can be permanent or temporary, according to the Cancer Research U.K. website; however the mutations following the treatment, as a result of radiation, will be permanent, Skinner said.

“Spermatogenic stem cells, or the cells that produce sperm, will still be affected 10 to 15 years after treatment,” he said.

There is currently no way to reverse this problem, Skinner said. However, the research team has submitted grants to various research institutes, including the National Institute of Health and various hospitals in Seattle, for studies on how to fix the mutations.

“We are developing some technologies that are suggesting we may be able to start approaching it,” Skinner said. “We are talking about another 25 to 50 years before being able to do this. We are not advanced enough right now.”