The science of life

Features Posted 15/10/18
A passionate quest for solutions in the complex world of genetics and fertility.

Alan Thornhill PhD is working towards a vision of a world where every prospective parent is given the best chance to have a healthy baby, harnessing the benefits of the latest technology and research into fertility and genetics.

He’s not, he hastens to assure me, “playing God” here. He knows there are sensitive issues around the testing of embryos and genetic testing, but he does not shy away from controversy. It’s immediately clear he is passionate about a topic which has engaged his working hours for more than 20 years and he is willing to speak out for his chosen field of expertise.

As a specialist in genetics and embryology, Alan’s role as country manager and senior scientific adviser with Igenomix UK, a company providing advanced services in reproductive genetics, revolves around what is, in its most basic terms, the science of life.

He joined the company, based on the Surrey Research Park at Guildford, last year after many years at the sharp end of fertility treatment, regulation and research as an IVF scientist. He now leads an ISO-accredited medical testing laboratory developing and delivering tests and services for fertility clinics across the UK and Europe.

Alan’s interest in the subject began with a PhD in mouse genetics and embryology in 1996, after which he joined a research team headed by Marilyn Monk, developing tests sensitive at the single-cell level. Among his mentors was the eminent clinical embryologist Virginia Bolton, who warned Alan she would start his training by treating him as “a complete idiot”, he recalls. It was a tough lesson, but made him focus on the subject and take nothing for granted.

After several more IVF jobs, Alan was headhunted in 1999 by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and uprooted his wife and five-month-old daughter to the US to begin five happy years setting up a programme for genetic testing in embryos and running the IVF and andrology laboratories. “It was a fantastic job, amazing people and a great opportunity,” he recalls, “but my wife wanted to come home and by then we had two more children, so I reluctantly agreed.”

Back in London, Alan became scientific director at the Bridge Fertility Centre, where he worked with the pioneer of embryo testing, Alan Handyside, providing tests for specific genetic conditions in embryos before pregnancy. The work was absorbing, challenging and cutting-edge and Alan remained at the centre for eight years.

While there, he was appointed as a professional member to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK’s regulator. He relished the public service aspect of the role and the opportunity to make a difference on a national level for couples desperately seeking help in their fertility journey. It was a definite case of “poacher turned gamekeeper,” Alan says with a smile.

“A mantra from the Mayo Clinic came back to me while I was working with HFEA – ‘never forget, the needs of the patient come first’,” he says. “If there is a benefit, the next question must be how to make it happen.”

After leaving the Bridge Centre, Alan made the move to what is called by some within fertility circles as “the dark side” – developing practical and commercial solutions for the IVF industry. From 2013 to 2017 he worked for Illumina, the world’s leading DNA sequencing company, in a marketing development role, leading education and awareness campaigns in the fertility sector. The jump to Igenomix, the brainchild of Spanish fertility pioneer Professor Carlos Simon, was made last year and Alan has not looked back.

His working life is now devoted to every aspect of delivering high-quality, meaningful tests designed to help childless couples to conceive and produce a healthy baby. Alan sits forward in his seat as he enthusiastically outlines the benefits of two exciting new tests. The first, pre-conception genetic “carrier screening” blood tests to avoid the birth of children with serious genetic disease, a potential timebomb for about 5% of couples seeking IVF.

Second, a new breed of tests performed on tissue from the lining of the womb, to identify both the type and numbers of microbes present and the receptive status – both of which can affect the likelihood of pregnancy. His work also covers tests performed on IVF embryos, to ensure they are genetically healthy.

My mind blurs a little as Alan’s conversation becomes littered with technical terms involving chromosomes, microbiomes, gene expression and “windows of implantation”. It’s clearly an absorbing and dynamic world which still fascinates him.

When he’s not in the office Alan is a busy single dad to his three teenaged children, the eldest of whom is in her second year at Oxford studying biology. He also loves to sing and is appearing as Anatoly in the Haslemere Players’ production of the musical Chess this month. If he brings the same passion he has at work to the role, he’ll steal the show!

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