15 April 2013
ByAppeared in BioNews 700
A Matter of Life: The Story of IVF - A Medical Breakthrough
By Professor Sir Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe
Buy this book from Amazon UK
In the UK, around one in six couples has difficulty conceiving, and it is this desire to have children that drove two awe-inspiring men – Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe – to work together to perfect a technique known as IVF.
Ten years of collaboration between scientist Robert Edwards and gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe culminated in the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, and although the scientific process of IVF is taught in most schools in GCSE or A-Level Biology, the story of their challenges and painstaking research is one that is unsung.
A Matter of Life: The Story of IVF – A Medical Breakthrough, by Edwards and Steptoe, pieces together this story. This inspirational book recounts, in vivid detail, their memories of their research and the development of IVF.
Initially, I expected this book to be heavy on scientific jargon and the process of IVF; however, it was apparent from the outset that this book was not just for the scientist. Although there are some scientific terms used, these are almost always well-explained and do not detract from the content.
In contrast to many popular science books, A Matter of Life is replete with real-life characters who are filled with such passion and drive. It is clear from the beginning that the narrators, Edwards and Steptoe, are imbued with compassion and empathy, especially as Edwards describes his arduous task of making a name for himself in the scientific realm by pioneering reproductive techniques. Arduous is an understatement, as readers discover, since he not only faced the technical difficulties of his work dealing with microscopic cells such as ova and spermatozoa, but also faced backlash from the scientific community, religious groups and the media for his radical approach to reproductive medicine.
Similarly, we hear Steptoe's gut-wrenching account of how he, as a medical student, found it demoralising to be unable to help couples to conceive. These accounts truly bring to life what it is like to be a scientist and help us to appreciate the efforts that these scientists have made to help bring joy to childless couples.
Throughout the course of their tale, the narrators show their different facets, not just as scientists, but also as fathers, husbands and members of the public. It was especially interesting to see how their view of their own work changed as ethical discussions began to take place. Countless questions swarmed their minds at various points in their work: ones that are still being asked today.
The issue of eugenics and designer babies was prevalent after their first fertilisation outside the human body. Edwards predicted from early on that his work could lead to genetic engineering, and this is reflected in today's technology, such as saviour sibling treatment, which involves preimplantation genetic diagnosis, as well as in techniques to prevent mitochondrial disease, involving mitochondrial transfer. Intrinsically, these techniques do carry ethical considerations, and further development of new techniques to treat numerous other conditions may also be hindered.
However, it can be seen from the book that over time, as these scientific principles become increasingly better understood and so accepted, people's moral values do change, so it is encouraging to look forward to a future where the treatment of many currently untreatable medical conditions remains a possibility.
Amidst the absorbing narrative, what struck me most was the story of the conception and birth of Louise Joy Brown, the first 'test tube baby'. Her middle name no doubt depicts the emotion that must have been experienced not only by her parents, Lesley and John Brown, but also by Edwards and Steptoe as they were vindicated by the birth of a healthy baby to parents who would have been deemed irrevocably infertile just a few years previously.
The depth of the human experience is what makes this book a fascinating and compelling read, and one that bestows upon the reader a new perspective on the importance of medicine in our society. With a light-hearted and humorous narrative, this truly inspirational book immortalises these two doctors, along with their scientific and medical team.
Buy A Matter of Life: The Story of IVF - A Medical Breakthrough from Amazon UK.