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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Edwards: The IVF pioneer
By Martin Hutchinson
BBC News Online staff

Edwards
Edwards pictured in 1978 at Louise Brown's birth
It is not the instant of Louise Brown's birth that gives Professor Robert Edwards the most pleasure.

The IVF pioneer is a scientific man - while he describes her first cry as "stunning", his most prized moment came long before that.

It was the moment when, years earlier, under the microscope in Cambridge, he saw the tell tale signs that he had created a new life.

After putting sperm and eggs together, he saw the machinery of the cell in action, starting on the long route towards the building of a human baby.

"It was amazing. Then, I knew that the whole field was opening up before my eyes."

The idea of in vitro fertilisation had first been put forward as early as the 1930s, but it was not until the 1950s that anyone managed to fertilise a mammal egg in a test tube.

Edwards, Steptoe - and Louise
Rabbits were one thing, but, as scientists were finding out, the secrets of the human reproductive sytem proved to be hard-won indeed.

Professor Edwards said: "By 1965 I'd been trying to mature human eggs for the past five years."

There was nobody racing against us - nobody had figured any of the ideas of this concept
Professor Robert Edwards
It took further years of effort to produce a magical figure - 37 hours - the length of time it took for a human egg to become ready for fertilisation after a particular point in a woman's cycle.

Despite the delay Edwards felt that his team was alone in trying to answer these questions.

"There was nobody racing against us - nobody had figured any of the ideas of this concept."

Eventually, after endless tinkering with the fluid surrounding his eggs and sperm he had his goal, under his microscope - five day human embryos called blastocysts, little balls of cells, developing normally.

"I looked, and there they were, just floating there - beautiful."

Real patients

Eventually, thoughts turned increasingly to the practical, from the laboratory towards live patients.

Edwards knew he would need a partner to help him retrieve eggs so that he could fertilise them.

"I read about this chap Steptoe in the Lancet, about his work with something called a laparascope - a probe.

"He was writing about how he had managed to reach the fallopian tubes.

"I thought, if he can do that, he can reach the ovaries."

We were called everything under the sun - immoral, unethical, dehumanising
Professor Bob Edwards
Steptoe already had the reputation as a maverick - Edwards was warned that he was "dangerous".

However, pretty soon, once the aim of their alliance became common knowledge, both of them were attracting hostile comment from all sides.

"No-one allowed us to consult from their clinic - even when we had the proper ethical consent.

"We were called everything under the sun - immoral, unethical, dehumanising."

But he never shied away from the debate.

"I've never been frightened of the ethical side of things.

"Patrick and I agreed when we first started that if ever either of us thought we were doing harm, we would stop instantly - and chuck out all our techniques."

Obstacles

Their clinic moved to Oldham, and there was no shortage of desperate couples who had been told that they had no chance of having a child.

Edwards shuttled back and forth from Oldham to Cambridge - occasionally carrying freshly "harvested" eggs strapped to his side to keep them warm as he made the journey.

Despite the successes in the laboratory, there were many other problems to be overcome.

A way had to be found to control ovulation using drugs, and to predict when a woman was ready for "egg retrieval".

On top of that, techniques to make sure male sperm was ready to fertilise had to be developed, and a decision had to be made as to how soon after fertilisation the new embryo should be put back.

And, for years, there was little to celebrate at Oldham General Hospital.

Patrick Steptoe died in 1988
"The disasters came one after another - there was not a sign of a pregnancy.

"Then there were early pregnancies that aborted."

What should have been a step forward proved precisely the opposite - a pregnancy in a woman whose fallopian tubes had been removed by surgeons.

However, cruelly, the operation had left remnants of tube, and the embryo implanted in one of these, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

For critics of the research programme, this was too good an opportunity to miss.

"There were so many problems, yet we never thought they were insurmountable. We knew it could be done."

Good intentions

Eventually, the Browns arrived in Oldham, and Steptoe and Edwards' moment had arrived.

I've never seen anyone try to do evil
Professor Robert Edwards
They realised the immense potential of what they had achieved.

"We may have overestimated it. When we discussed how many people would be affected by this technique, we put it at about 10 per cent of the population.

"The whole world was opening up. It's a revolution in thinking - that man is controlling his own conception."

Even now, he has kind words for many of those considered mavericks, operating at the very fringes of mainstream ethics, such as Professor Severino Antinori, who claims to be attempting to clone a human.

"He is a man who cares very much for his patients - nobody goes into this to cause harm.

"I've never seen anyone try to do evil."

And at 77 years of age, while many would be happy to accept retirement and relaxation, Edwards is talking about getting back into the laboratory to get to work on embryos once again.

One of the fields which he first probed back in the 1960s - stem cells - could, in his lifetime, provide treatments and perhaps even cures for some of mankind's most feared diseases.

Professor Bob Edwards may not be remembered only for Louise Brown.



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