For her cutting-edge study that sheds more light on how a baby’s sex is determined, PhD student Brittany Croft has received a top international accolade.
She received the 2019 Lalor Foundation Merit Award at the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) 52nd Annual Meeting in San Jose, California. The acknowledgement recognises the ‘most meritorious, well-interpreted and significant research presented by students at a conference’.
At the conference, she also made Australia proud by receiving the award for Best International Abstract.
Ms Croft, who is studying for a PhD under the supervision of Professor Vincent Harley and Professor Andrew Sinclair (MCRI), was given the award in recognition for her research on how a baby’s sex is determined, which she was invited to present on at the conference.
“It was a surprise to be awarded the Lalor Foundation Merit award. I felt really lucky to have been given the chance to present my work and to be showcased at the SSR meeting,” Ms Croft said.
“This is a win for the project and all of the people who contributed to the Nature Communications paper we published late last year,” she said.
The study Ms Croft received the award for shows sex determination is not just about X-Y chromosomes, but involves a ‘regulator’ that increases or decreases the activity of a single gene that is needed to become male.
Ms Croft, who was co-first author of the study, said “The Y chromosome carries a critical gene, called SRY, which acts on another gene called SOX9 to start the development of testes in the embryo. High levels of the SOX9 gene are needed for normal testis development.
“However, if there is some disruption to SOX9 activity and only low levels are present, a testis will not develop resulting in a baby with a disorder of sex development,” she said.
Lead author of the study, Professor Andrew Sinclair said, “We discovered three enhancers that work together to ensure the SOX9 gene is turned on to a high level in an XY embryo, leading to normal testis and male development.
“The key to diagnosing many disorders may be found in these enhancers, which hide in the poorly understood dark matter of our DNA,” he said.
What’s next for Ms Croft
“We are currently using the testis enhancers that I identified to assess changes in other sex determining genes,” she said.
“This research will increase diagnosis rates for patients with sex development disorders, improving clinical care.
“Based on these findings, we have begun to screen patients with disorders of sex development for changes in these regulators. However, our lab is still the only one in Australia that does this.
“My hope is that diagnostic screens for these regulators will become included as routine prenatal screening across the world.”
Ms Croft spent six weeks prior to the course attending the Marine Biological laboratory Embryology course in the USA, where she has been studying developmental biology and advanced scientific technology.
“Currently I am in the process of writing my thesis. Once I’m finished, my next step is to graduate and continue in a career in medical research,” she said.
The Lalor Foundation Merit Award
The award is funded through The Anna Lalor Burdick Program, which focuses on improving the lives of young women who have inadequate access to information regarding reproductive health, including the subjects of contraception and pregnancy termination, and as such may be particularly lacking options in their lives.