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IVF: much to celebrate

Juliet Tizzard

Progress Educational Trust

01 August 2003

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[BioNews, London] On 25 July, scientists and doctors working in reproductive medicine came together at a conference in London to celebrate the 25th anniversary IVF. The following day, doctors, patients and their children met at Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge to mark IVF's birthday.

It was a weekend of self-congratulation. And so it should have been. Scientists conducting research in human reproduction, starting with Robert Edwards in the 1970s, have achieved much over the past 30 years, not least the birth of more than a million IVF babies around the world. Australian biologist Alan Trounson thinks that the successes will continue to come. He told journalists that developments in stem cell research could lead to the eradication of many types of infertility which are currently untreatable. 'In future we'll be able to take cells and reconstruct the equivalent of sperm and eggs. It is theoretically possible,' he said.

Much of the media took Professor Trounson's comments to mean that in a decade infertility could be a thing of the past. But, as he also pointed out, and most newspapers failed to report, new techniques such as this will only be developed in countries which can afford them. Even within those richer countries, the availability of treatments for infertility is by no means guaranteed. Infertile couples seeking treatment in the UK, for instance, are among the least likely in Europe to receive the treatment they require because of a lack of public funding.

But it's not just funding that can stand in the way of new therapies. Sometimes, media over-reactions to new developments can lead to hasty regulation. When talking about the development of IVF-related techniques, commentators often say that scientific advances are running ahead of our ethical sensibilities and our legal structures. Just in the last month, two issues - the creation of chimera embryos and the use of eggs from aborted fetuses - have prompted calls for scientists to stop and think about what they are doing and to give time for tighter regulation to be drawn up. The irony, in these two examples, is that science is actually running a long way behind regulation. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, passed in 1990, already regulates the creation of chimeras and an amendment to the act, passed in 1994, prevents the use of eggs from aborted fetuses in the treatment of infertility (although it does allow it for research). The research projects which provoked the media discussion on these two issues are both in their infancy and are nowhere near becoming a clinical service.

During the weekend's celebrations, IVF pioneer Robert Edwards talked of how he and his colleague, Patrick Steptoe, were publicly criticised for their enthusiasm about IVF. The media, politicians and even fellow scientists and doctors considered Steptoe and Edwards irresponsible dreamers. Perhaps one lesson we can learn from the past 25 years is to trust scientists a little more and allow them the space to show how they, like the IVF pioneers, can do good in the world.

© Copyright Progress Educational Trust

Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.

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Date Added: 01 August 2003   Date Updated: 12 September 2004
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