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 Meadows beat out shrubs when it comes to storing carbon
23.11.2017 | Norwegian University of Science and Technology

nachricht Migrating Cells: Folds in the cell membrane supply material for necessary blebs
23.11.2017 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Frictional Heat Powers Hydrothermal Activity on Enceladus

Computer simulation shows how the icy moon heats water in a porous rock core

Heat from the friction of rocks caused by tidal forces could be the “engine” for the hydrothermal activity on Saturn's moon Enceladus. This presupposes that...

Im Focus: Nanoparticles help with malaria diagnosis – new rapid test in development

The WHO reports an estimated 429,000 malaria deaths each year. The disease mostly affects tropical and subtropical regions and in particular the African continent. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME and the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Tübingen for a new test method to detect malaria parasites in blood. The idea of the research project “NanoFRET” is to develop a highly sensitive and reliable rapid diagnostic test so that patient treatment can begin as early as possible.

Malaria is caused by parasites transmitted by mosquito bite. The most dangerous form of malaria is malaria tropica. Left untreated, it is fatal in most cases....

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Underwater acoustic localization of marine mammals and vehicles

23.11.2017 | Information Technology

Enhancing the quantum sensing capabilities of diamond

23.11.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Meadows beat out shrubs when it comes to storing carbon

23.11.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>