A historical article by Martin Johnson et al in Human Reproduction gives a fascinating insight into research funders’ thinking nearly 40 years ago.
In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is widespread these days but still manages to excite controversy in some quarters. Back in 1971, when Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards submitted a proposal to the MRC, many people had misgivings about IVF including eminent scientists such as Jim Watson. Johnson and co-authors have used archive material and interviews to examine the background and reasons for MRC’s refusal to fund their project. Johnson lists four key reasons for the rejection, and it is interesting to see how science, ethics and research strategy are all components of the decision.
- A strategic error by Edwards and Steptoe when they declined an invitation from the MRC to join a new, directly funded Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow. They preferred to ask for long-term grant support at the University of Cambridge, but this meant they had to compete for funding with all the other research projects bidding for MRC support. This was also difficult for Cambridge, which lacked the back-up of an academic Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at that time.
- Most of the MRC referees who were consulted on the proposal considered, in line with government policy, that it was more important to limit fertility and the growth of Britain’s population than to treat infertility. Treating infertility was seen as experimental research rather than as therapeutic.
- Concerns about embryo quality (would babies be born with severe abnormalities?) and patient safety made the referees doubt the wisdom of funding embryo transfer without conducting studies in primates first.
- Edwards’ and Steptoe’s high profile in the media antagonised the referees who strongly disapproved of this method of public discussion of the science and ethics of treating infertility.
Edwards and Steptoe vividly describe in their 1980 book1 the story of how they rose above this setback and successfully saw the first baby born following IVF. My favourite part of that book is Edwards’ description of his time at Mill Hill, in particular this bit:
First, I had to check the scientific literature to set the background. Upstairs in the Mill Hill Institute there is a very spacious, comprehensive library. I sat there amongst the polished tables reading the journals hour after hour. One morning in the quiet of that comfortable library, as I read one particular paper I stopped reading and said quietly, ‘Sod it’. I looked up. Nobody had heard me. Nobody in the library at that particular moment was aware of my sudden disappointment. For I had just learned that my discovery was not new.
Of course times have changed and as everyone now reads papers from the comfort of their desktop/iPhone/iPad, I no longer hear a chorus of ‘sod it’ and ‘Eureka!’ coming from the library.
A press release, plus coverage in The Independent give details if you can’t access the article itself2.
1 Robert Edwards & Patrick Steptoe, A matter of life, the story of a medical breakthrough, Hutchinson, 1980.
2 Martin H. Johnson, Sarah B. Franklin, Matthew Cottingham and Nick Hopwood. (2010) Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971. Human Reproduction, epub ahead of print doi:10.1093/humrep/deq155.