Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Why the MRC didn't fund research that led to the birth of the world's first test tube baby

26.07.2010
Thirty-two years ago today, the world's first baby was born after in vitro fertilisation. However, the work that led to the birth of Louise Brown on 25 July 1978 had to be privately funded after the UK's Medical Research Council decided in 1971 against providing the Cambridge physiologist Robert Edwards and the Oldham gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe with long-term financial support.

Today, an intriguing paper published in Europe's leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction [1] reveals for the first time the reasoning behind the MRC's much-criticised decision.

The authors of the research, led by Martin Johnson, Professor of Reproductive Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, write: "The failure of Edwards' and Steptoe's application for long-term support was not simply due to widespread establishment hostility to IVF. It failed, we argue for more complex reasons".

These reasons included:

A strategic error by Edwards and Steptoe when they declined an invitation from the MRC to join a new, directly funded Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. They preferred to ask for long-term grant support at the University of Cambridge, but this meant they had to compete for funding with all the other research projects bidding for MRC support. This was also difficult for Cambridge, which lacked the back-up of an academic Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at that time.

Most of the MRC referees who were consulted on the proposal considered, in line with government policy, that it was more important to limit fertility and the growth of Britain's population than to treat infertility. Treating infertility was seen as experimental research rather than as therapeutic.

Concerns about embryo quality (would babies be born with severe abnormalities?) and patient safety made the referees doubt the wisdom of funding embryo transfer without conducting studies in primates first.

Edwards' and Steptoe's high profile in the media antagonised the referees who strongly disapproved of this method of public discussion of the science and ethics of treating infertility.

An additional obstacle for Edwards and Steptoe was that they were seen by the MRC as not being part of the "medical establishment". In their paper, Prof Johnson and his colleagues write: "Steptoe came from a minor northern hospital, while Edwards, though from Cambridge, was neither medically qualified nor yet a professor." Edwards had a PhD in developmental genetics from the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh, then the leading UK centre in the field.

Prof Johnson said: "The MRC's negative decision on funding of IVF, and their public defence of this decision, had major consequences for Edwards and Steptoe and set MRC policy on IVF research funding for the next eight years. This decision was only reversed after the birth of two healthy babies from seven IVF pregnancies. In its 1978/79 Annual Report, the MRC announced a change of policy and from that time on became a strong and major supporter of research on human IVF and human embryos, although curiously not research follow-up of IVF pregnancies."

Since then, an estimated 4.3 million babies have been born worldwide with the help of a range of fertility treatments developed since the birth of Louise Brown [2].

Prof Johnson and his colleagues, Sarah Franklin, Matthew Cottingham and Nick Hopwood, spent three years studying the MRC records at the National Archives at Kew in Surrey, and also documents from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge University Library. Bob Edwards' wife, Ruth, gave them access to his private papers, and the researchers also interviewed many of the key players involved in the MRC's decision in 1971 not to fund the research.

In an accompanying editorial [3], Professor John Biggers from Harvard Medical School (USA), writes: "By taking us back 40 years, the authors have demonstrated the importance of understanding a decision in light of the culture and circumstances at the time the decision was made. Although the grant was rejected, Edwards' and Steptoe's visions and persistence have benefited an enormous number of infertile people, both male and female."

Prof Johnson said: "The story of the MRC's non-funding of IVF belies the cliché that science 'races ahead' of society. Similarly, the standard view, that ethical consideration of bioscience and biomedicine can only ever be reactive, is contradicted by the evidence of extensive ethical debate surrounding the prehistory of clinical IVF – most of it actively stimulated by Edwards himself. Although attitudes to medical scientists in the media have changed significantly since the 1970s, scientists and clinicians engaged in high-profile work still face a dilemma. If they encourage public discussion of their work – which they may see as both necessary to securing support and desirable to ensure full ethical debate – must they inevitably weaken their standing among their peers?

"Finally, our case study questions the myth of two courageous mavericks pitted against a conservative establishment. This myth does capture important elements of truth: Edwards and Steptoe were outsiders and did pioneer—against prevailing wisdom—new ideas, therapies, values, public discourses and ethical thinking. But the process of decision-making was more complex than the myth allows. Our research provides a fuller understanding of what happened at the birth of the IVF revolution."

Prof Johnson believes that today the decision-making processes involved in awarding funding for projects are more open and transparent, with discussion in the wider community and in the media actively welcomed, as was the case with the two Human Fertilisation and Embryology Acts in 1990 and 2008.

"A continuing problem, however, is more to do with the fact that there are some very fashionable topics that can create a buzz and attract huge research interest and funding, sometimes in disproportionate amounts; then it was fertility limitation, more recently genome sequencing would be an example. This can leave other Cinderella topics languishing in the ashes, with little financial support, even though they might well play an equally, if not more, important role in patient welfare."

[1] Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971. doi:10.1093/humrep/deq155
[2] From new data presented at the 2010 annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Rome.

[3] Editorial. doi:10.1093/humrep/deq156

Emma Mason | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.eshre.eu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Nanoparticle Exposure Can Awaken Dormant Viruses in the Lungs
16.01.2017 | Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt

nachricht Cholera bacteria infect more effectively with a simple twist of shape
13.01.2017 | Princeton University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

Im Focus: How to inflate a hardened concrete shell with a weight of 80 t

At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).

Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...

Im Focus: Bacterial Pac Man molecule snaps at sugar

Many pathogens use certain sugar compounds from their host to help conceal themselves against the immune system. Scientists at the University of Bonn have now, in cooperation with researchers at the University of York in the United Kingdom, analyzed the dynamics of a bacterial molecule that is involved in this process. They demonstrate that the protein grabs onto the sugar molecule with a Pac Man-like chewing motion and holds it until it can be used. Their results could help design therapeutics that could make the protein poorer at grabbing and holding and hence compromise the pathogen in the host. The study has now been published in “Biophysical Journal”.

The cells of the mouth, nose and intestinal mucosa produce large quantities of a chemical called sialic acid. Many bacteria possess a special transport system...

Im Focus: Newly proposed reference datasets improve weather satellite data quality

UMD, NOAA collaboration demonstrates suitability of in-orbit datasets for weather satellite calibration

"Traffic and weather, together on the hour!" blasts your local radio station, while your smartphone knows the weather halfway across the world. A network of...

Im Focus: Repairing defects in fiber-reinforced plastics more efficiently

Fiber-reinforced plastics (FRP) are frequently used in the aeronautic and automobile industry. However, the repair of workpieces made of these composite materials is often less profitable than exchanging the part. In order to increase the lifetime of FRP parts and to make them more eco-efficient, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) and the Apodius GmbH want to combine a new measuring device for fiber layer orientation with an innovative laser-based repair process.

Defects in FRP pieces may be production or operation-related. Whether or not repair is cost-effective depends on the geometry of the defective area, the tools...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

Nothing will happen without batteries making it happen!

05.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Multiregional brain on a chip

16.01.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

New technology enables 5-D imaging in live animals, humans

16.01.2017 | Information Technology

Researchers develop environmentally friendly soy air filter

16.01.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>