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Study sheds light on why MRC did not fund first 'test tube' baby

26 July 2010
Appeared in BioNews 568

New research reveals why the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) failed to fund research leading to the birth of the first IVF and embryo transfer (IVFET - in vitro fertilization embryo transfer) baby. The MRC rejected Dr Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe's original grant application for 'studies on Human Reproduction' in 1971. The pair received private funding, and were ultimately successful, when Louise Brown was born in 1978.

The decision by the MRC to reject their application has entered the mythology surrounding the field of IVF, and is widely viewed as short-sighted. But the researchers, led by Professor Martin Johnson from Cambridge University, were given unique access to the deliberations of the review panel, and found that the decision to reject the application was complex.

They discovered many people at the MRC were positive towards the application, which contradicts the widely held view that there was 'widespread establishment hostility to IVF', but that a number of other concerns were raised.

The reviewers were concerned Dr Edwards and Dr Steptoe wanted to carry out the research in Cambridge, having offered them facilities at Northwick Park hospital in London. They feared 'clinical facilities and patient management' may be compromised. They were also concerned that population control should be an MRC priority, were worried about abnormalities, wanted primate studies, and were unhappy about the media interest in the research.  This combination of concerns led them to reject the funding application.

The authors say that their study is 'the first detailed analysis of the role of the MRC in a landmark event in the history of reproduction'. The research: 'provides insight into the then dominant attitudes of reproductive scientists and clinicians towards human conception research'.

The paper is published in Human Reproduction, 24th July 2010.

11 October 2010 - by Professor Martin H Johnson 
Professor Robert Edwards was last week awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on IVF [1]. Bob might seem an obvious award candidate since IVF and related treatments are taken for granted nowadays. Most of us know family, friends and/or colleagues who have used IVF, PGD, surrogacy or gamete donation. During the lonely days of the 1960s and 70s, the situation was very different...
12 August 2008 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Thirty years after the world's first IVF-baby was born commentators and reporters are assessing the gains made by the fertility treatment and the future that lies ahead. Although it seems IVF today has become the established and routine medical procedure its pioneers in 1978 probably hoped it would become, issues...
21 July 2008 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, will next week celebrate her 30th birthday - but as parents and children born through IVF representing each year since Louise was born came together at Bourn Hall fertility clinic to mark the occasion, many commentators have pointed to the continued...
10 July 2006 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
Louise Brown, the world's first test tube baby, is expecting her own child. Now aged 27, Louise was born after the first successful IVF treatment on 25 July 1978 - now she and her husband, Wesley Mullinder, are preparing for their first baby in January. The couple...
26 July 1999 - by BioNews 
Medical history was made when one of Britain's first babies born as a result of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) gave birth to a healthy baby in May after becoming probably the first IVF girl to conceive naturally. Natalie Brown, 17, is the sister of Louise Brown who became the world's...
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