Sir Robert Edwards died last week on 10th of April. His work in reproductive physiology was a joint venture with Patrick Steptoe a gynaecologist, and led to the development of IVF [in vitro fertilisation]. There are now more than 5 million IVF babies.
In 1960 Edwards started to study human fertilisation and by 1968 he had developed a human cell culture medium. Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist, used the new technique of laparoscopy to obtain human oocytes. However their attempts to fertilise a human egg met with a lot of resistance. They were given no support from UK funding bodies and there were a number of lawsuits against them because of the nature of their research. There were a lot of people who thought that children should be viewed as a God given gift and they were regularly attacked by not only religious leaders but also medical and scientific colleagues.
In 1978 Louise Brown was the first ‘test tube baby’ born by IVF – a technique in which an oocyte is fertilised by sperm outside the body [in vitro] and the resulting embryo is then placed back in the woman’s body.
IVF led to a host of ethical dilemmas. It was now possible to screen for genetic disorders, select embryos for certain characteristics including the ability to donate life saving material to siblings. Embryos can be used for experimentation and to produce stem cells. IVF can lead to multiple pregnancies and pregnancies in women past the menopause. HFEA [The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] was created to decide on such ethical matters.
It took over 25 years for IVF to be sufficiently accepted for Professor Bob Edwards to be awarded the Nobel prize and to be Knighted. He expressed regrets that Patrick Steptoe had died years before. For some IVF is still an anathema; the Vatican declared itself appalled when the Nobel prize was announced but for others Professor Bob Edwards was a kindly man who said his work was motivated by the belief that ‘the most important thing in life is to have a child’.