‘We're aiming to develop treatments to alleviate the devastation experienced by many couples'

Athanasios Georgakas, a PhD student working on a project funded by Tommy's tells us about his incredible research into the role of damaged sperm DNA in unexplained miscarriage.

PhD interview, 28/09/2017, by Athanasios

Early this year we were proud to open Tommy's National Centre for Miscarriage Research which is the largest centre of its kind in Europe.

At Tommy's we are all too familiar with the pain that miscarriage can cause and the questions it leaves parents asking. These questions are often sadly left unanswered.

This is because whilst miscarriage is by far the biggest cause of pregnancy loss in the UK, it is also the least understood.

Our centre is working to understand why miscarriage happens and if it is likely to happen again. Our researchers are trying to find ways of preventing miscarriage in order to end the heartache that 1 in 4 UK parents currently experienced.

The ongoing work of this centre and it's achievements to date would not be possible without the hard working team of Tommy's funded researchers and medical professionals.

Athanasios Georgakas is a 31 year old PhD student who is currently in his first year of PhD study at the Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research at the University of Birmingham, one our Tommy's National Centre for Miscarriage Research sites.

He is focusing on the role of sperm DNA quality in early miscarriage.

Damage to sperm DNA, such as breaks in single or double DNA strands, has been linked to increased risk or miscarriage. This research is an important steps towards finding out how big a role this plays in explaining currently unexplained miscarriage.

How long you have been working on this body of research and how did you come to be working on it?

As an undergraduate student in Greece I had the opportunity to receive hands-on training in farm animal breeding. Subsequently whilst studying for my Masters degree in Wales, I visited Sweden and worked on stallion semen quality at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. During this time I developed my laboratory and scientific skills, and realised that I really wanted to work in the field of reproductive biology and in particular in andrology. Eventually, my research goals took shape while I was working with infertile men as a Laboratory Andrology Practitioner at UCLH.

Why does this research appeal to you specifically?

My professional experience, working at a large NHS fertility centre, soon helped me to realise the importance of male factor infertility, in particular in relation to miscarriage. It is a really rewarding experience to contribute to such an exciting translational research project and to see how research work in the laboratory can improve the prevention and prognosis of miscarriage in clinical practice.This project is a truly fantastic opportunity for me and my supervisors Dr Jackson Kirkman-Brown, Professor Arri Coomarasamy and Dr Sarah Conner, to explore a really fascinating research topic and hopefully change some paradigms in unexplained miscarriage.

What is the long term aim of the work you are currently doing and when do you expect to have reached these results?

Our journey has just officially started but we hope to achieve meaningful initial results, to guide us in the next stages of my research, by Easter 2017.  We will be trying to confirm the level at which sperm DNA damage starts to have a clinical effect on miscarriage risk, and whether we can treat the man to stop the sperm DNA being damaged, to alleviate miscarriage. Moreover, since my PhD project is a work package within the wider Tommy’s miscarriage research portfolio, some of our findings will be informed by co-analysis with the results of other work packages, and therefore available only at a later stage.

How long has Tommy’s been involved with the work you’re doing and what impact does the charity have on what you’re able to do?

Tommy’s charity is crucial to this work. In particular my PhD project is one of the work packages within Tommy's National Centre for Miscarriage Research, directed by Professor Arri Coomarasamy here in Birmingham. Tommy’s is unique among many charities in that research and evidence-based medicine is a fundamental part of its existence. Therefore, in working as a PhD student and being a member of Tommy’s research team, I benefit not only from the necessary funding but also from expertise and knowledge invaluable for my study.

How do you hope the work you’re doing will impact on hopefully parents across the nation?

We know that miscarriage affects 200,000 couples every year in the UK. Based on a systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by our team, as well as other studies published in recent years, we also know that many currently unexplained early miscarriages may be linked to poor sperm quality and in particular high sperm DNA fragmentation. Therefore we aim to systematically study this scenario, and hopefully develop some useful diagnostic and treatment approaches that will help to ameliorate the physical and emotional devastation experienced by many couples in UK and worldwide.

How much interaction do you have with women and parents and how much is based in the laboratory?

My work is based within UoB Centre for Human Reproductive Science (ChRS) laboratories as well as at Birmingham Women’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (BWH). I’m confident that with expert teams within Tommy’s, UoB and BWH, we can provide all the support and information that couples may require. The outcome of this project is directly linked to the collaborative efforts of scientists, healthcare professionals and of course the patients who would like to participate.

What does the Tommy’s funding enable you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have been in a position to?

None of this would be happening without the support of Tommy’s!

Let’s end on a cheesy one! What’s your proudest achievement to date?

I always dreamed of combining my skills, knowledge and passion for biology in a creative manner and for a useful purpose. Therefore I can undoubtedly say that I’m currently experiencing my greatest professional achievement.

If you want to take part in one of our current miscarriage research trials you can find out which trials are currently looking for participants here.

You can read more about the work of our National Centre for Miscarriage Research and how to get a referral here.

Read more about our miscarriage research

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