On 25 July we will mark the 43rd birthday of Louise Brown – the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’. Throughout July we will commemorate her birth in 1978 with our Reasons to Celebrate IVF’.
Some of the reasons and facts will have global significance, and others will be closer to home or very personal. But all of them will have been created by the amazing efforts of physiologist Sir Robert Edwards, gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, and nurse/embryologist Jean Purdy.
Their combined brilliance led directly to the births of Louise, and her sister Natalie four years later. It also led to the creation of millions of families around the world ever since.
Louise’s parents Lesley and John Brown had been trying to conceive for more than nine years, but blocked fallopian tubes prevented Lesley being able to get pregnant. When her condition was first diagnosed, Lesley was distraught at the thought of not being able to have a baby.
Hope in Oldham
But she was referred by her doctor in Bristol to Mr Steptoe at Kershaw’s Cottage Hospital in Oldham, where he was pioneering IVF with Edwards and Purdy. She was told it was her best (only!) chance of getting pregnant. Although she was also warned that the treatment was like ‘science fiction’ and the chance of success was ‘a million to one’.
Undaunted, in November 1977 Lesley and John underwent egg collection and her eggs and his sperm were mixed in a petri dish (not in a test-tube as the tabloids described!). Nurse Jean Purdy was the first to see the dividing cells of the embryo that would become Louise.
Following this they had their embryo transfer – after 63 other transfers for the many other women involved in the trial since 1971. Only one had resulted in a pregnancy – but sadly no live birth.
Then a couple weeks later Lesley and John received a letter from Professor Edwards. This contained the news they’d been hoping for for more than 10 years:
“Just a short note to let you know that the early results on your blood and urine are very encouraging and indicate that you might be in early pregnancy. So please take things quietly – no skiing, climbing or anything too strenuous including Xmas shopping!”
A ‘miracle’ birth
Nine months later, on 25 July 1978, Louise Joy arrived – and the world’s media descended on Oldham and then to the Brown’s home in Bristol. She was the first livebirth created outside of the human body and so was big news around the world.
In fact , before she was six months old her parents had flown almost 30,000 miles on a world tour to share their story with international media – and to provide hope to millions of people that maybe they too could have a baby after years of involuntary childlessness.
The legacy continues at RHG
How far has IVF come in those years! Which brings us to today in Cheshire, here at RHG-IVF Life. The clinic and our services opened in 2014 with a vision to offer easily accessible, comprehensive fertility investigations and treatment options individually tailored to patient needs, using the latest treatments and scientific expertise, in a purpose-built luxury clinic with state-of-the-art laboratories in comfortable surroundings.
And now we are also part of the IVF Life Group, a group of clinics across Europe. This gives us all the advantages of major scientific, medical, and research resources for the benefit of all our patients right here in Cheshire, and throughout the North West. But all this is because of that original team of three pioneers, plus Mr & Mrs Brown, and of course, Louise!
Now your fertility journey may include IVF, ICSI, or reciprocal IVF/shared motherhood. Or it might include treatments which include donor eggs, or donor sperm, or genetic testing, to improve your chance of success. And all these results from the work that led to the birth of Louise Brown.
Celebrating the family
One of the greatest motivations for Robert Edwards to develop IVF was his belief that ‘the most important thing in life is having a child’. And that’s what we celebrate this month – the hope that everyone who wants to have a family gets the chance to do so.
Reasons to Celebrate (1 to 6)
1. worldwide, more than 9 million babies have been born following IVF treatment – which is more than the population of London
2. more than a quarter of a million IVF babies had been born in the UK by 2016
3. ICSI was discovered (almost by accident) in 1994. It revolutionised the chance of sub-fertile men becoming genetic fathers. Only one healthy sperm is needed for each collected egg. The embryologist selects the best single sperm for each egg, and under ultra-magnification, injects it into the egg. When successful fertilisation occurs, an embryo may develop – just as in a natural fertilisation, or in IVF
5. Louise Brown and her husband naturally conceived their sons – although her sister Natalie was the first IVF baby to have a baby, when her first son was born in 2001
6. the world’s first frozen embryo baby was born in March 1984 in Australia. Baby Zoe followed her parents’ IVF treatment, and the freezing of some of their embryos for two months, before being thawed and transferred to her mother’s uterus. Embryo freezing gives patients more than one chance to conceive from a single IVF treatment cycle, either following a negative pregnancy test, or even after a live birth
Reasons to Celebrate (7 to 12)
7. worldwide, ICSI accounts for three quarters of all treatment cycles, with just 25% being ‘standard’ IVF
8. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) literally means ‘fertilisation in glass’. Instead of sperm fertilising an egg within the body (in vivo), fertilisation takes place in a sterile dish (in vitro) in a laboratory – but NOT in a test-tube! Carefully prepared motile sperm are mixed with eggs – if one of the sperm penetrates the egg and fertilisation occurs an embryo may develop
9. embryos are stored at an extremely low temperature (-196˚C) to halt their development. Once frozen they can remain in liquid nitrogen for many years. After this, they may be thawed and used in treatment
10. vitrification is a method of flash-freezing eggs and embryos which increases survival rates during the thaw process. Nowadays most UK clinics use vitrification instead of the slow-freeze method for freezing eggs and embryos
11. IVF has made female fertility preservation possible. Sperm freezing has been an option for men to preserve their fertility for decades. In the early 2000s egg freezing became available to women to preserve their possible future motherhood without creating embryos. Egg freezing gives young women diagnosed with cancer who need chemotherapy or radiotherapy which may damage their fertility, the possible chance of future motherhood. It also gives women who are not in a relationship and who want to be a mum in the future, the chance to preserve their eggs for possible future creation of embryos. Finally, it offers an alternative to couples who need fertility treatment but who have ethical concerns about creating and freezing embryos
12. the GERI™ time-lapse system provides stable and undisturbed embryo culture for patients’ embryos and allows the embryologists to monitor embryo development by taking a photograph of each embryo every five minutes. The embryologists can therefore observe all the critical events during embryo development and analyse the timings of these events using software with AI technology which has been developed from the data collected from thousands of embryos worldwide. This allows the embryologists to select the best embryos for transfer and cryopreservation.
Reasons to Celebrate (13 to 18)
13. IVF has given more options to lesbian women to become mothers. Initial assisted conception involved just IUI with donor sperm, but where this is unsuccessful – maybe due to blocked fallopian tubes – IVF with donor sperm provided an alternative route to motherhood. And now recoprocal IVF/shared motherhood gives two women in a same sex relationship the chance to both have a part in the conception of their baby
14. PGT-A is a laboratory process that can de-select embryos with the wrong chromosomal patterns to improve livebirth rates. PGT-A is recommended in IVF cycles for patients with three or more good quality blastocysts, who have had repeated implantation failures, or recurrent early miscarriages, or in women who are more than 35 years old.
15. IVF can be used with donor sperm – either for lesbian patients, or single women, or for M/F couples where the man’s sperm quality is too poor even for ICSI, or where there is a risk of him passing on an hereditary condition using his own sperm in treatment. All these options give people the chance of parenthood who would have previously remained involuntarily childless.
16. In the early 1980s a cycle of IVF cost between £1,500-£3,000 depending which early-adopter clinic you went to. And this was when the average UK wage was just £6,000!
17. The world’s first frozen embryo baby was born in 1984. Freezing good quality embryos has many benefits: 1) embryos are available for transfer either after an unsuccessful embryo transfer, without the need for another full treatment cycle. 2) Embryos are available for use following successful treatment and a livebirth, to have a sibling, all from the original treatment cycle. 3) Age-associated risks of pregnancy are determined by the age of the woman when the embryos were created rather than her age during any pregnancy from a frozen embryo transfer
18. A member of the RHG-IVF Life team and her husband tried to conceive for seven years (through her 20s), before being advised they’d need fertility treatment. A single cycle of ICSI resulted in 17 eggs collected, two embryos, but just a single embryo of transfer or freezing quality. But now their daughter is six years old – so they became a family as a result of the ‘discovery’ of IVF.
Reasons to Celebrate (19 to 24)
19. IVF drugs have improved over the years to improve the chance of creating enough good quality eggs without the risks of ovarian hyper-stimulation. Protocols can also be varied and tailored for a woman’s specific hormone levels and other conditions. This can make a treatment cycle gentler for you. Options now also include ‘natural cycle IVF’ which involves no fertility drugs at all, or ‘mild stimulation IVF’ which includes lower doses of medications over shorter periods. However, both these give ‘significantly lower’ chances of a successful outcome.
20. The first child born from egg donation was reported in Australia in 1983, just five years after the birth of Louise Brown. Nowadays, each year, hundreds of women in the UK conceive with eggs donated by another woman. Reasons for this include:
- a woman doesn’t produce any eggs because of a condition from birth – eg Turner Syndrome
- a woman has previously had cancer treatment which has made her infertile
- a woman has early menopause which has diminished the number and quality of her eggs
- a woman risks passing on an hereditary condition using her own eggs to conceive
- a woman is older and her own eggs will no longer create a pregnancy
IVF has made it possible for women with these conditions to carry a pregnancy and give birth.
21. For many decades donor sperm was originally used with IUI to help women become pregnant. But it soon became used in IVF cycles too. A woman or couple may need to use donor sperm if:
– a man’s testes many never have produced sperm because of a genetic condition
– surgery or drugs to treat cancer many have left a man infertile
– a man may produce sperm, but too few or poor quality to create a pregnancy
– a woman is single or in a same-sex relationship
22. For couples who need both donor eggs AND donor sperm, receiving donor embryos gives them the chance of parenthood. Some couples who have been lucky enough to create more embryos than they need to create their families, generously donate their viable embryos to other women or couples who cannot conceive with their own eggs and sperm. Although the baby is not biologically related to the birth parents, the mother gets to carry the pregnancy and give birth to the baby. From the start, the baby is legally recognised as the birth parents’ own – rather than as if they had adopted a baby. Embryo donation is an amazing gift and gives couples with complex fertility conditions the chance to become parents.
23. RHG-IVF Life offers counselling support services to help you through your fertility treatment, pregnancy, and beyond. Our counselling services are in accordance with the guidance and recommendations of the HFEA. This requires all licensed clinics to offer patients the chance to talk to a counsellor before you start treatment. RHG-IVF Life counsellors are registered with the British Infertility Counselling Association (BICA) and access to their care is included in our treatment packages, to ensure you are supported emotionally throughout your fertility journey.
24. In the UK, IVF is regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). This organisation was set-up to ensure that ‘everyone who steps into a fertility clinic, and everyone born as a result of treatment, receives high quality care’. It was created by legislation to work independently on behalf of the government – all as a result of the birth of Louise Brown.
25. Our final reason to celebrate and one of the most important is the acceptance of infertility, the normalisation of IVF treatments, eliminating barriers and the stigma towards infertility.