40th Anniversary of IVF a “moment for most serious reflection”

Professor Lord Winston, Chairman of Genesis Research Trust, has said the anniversary of the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, should mark a ‘moment for most serious reflection’ warning of failures around regulating the high cost of experimental treatments.

Professor Lord Winston said: “The fortieth anniversary of the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, is a time to celebrate the great happiness of millions of couples. But this achievement of Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, and many other pioneers, is also a moment for most serious reflection.”

Forty years on, the success of IVF is far lower than people imagine. In the UK, less than 20% of IVF cycles result in live births. In Australia, success is even lower at 18.1%.  In the USA, 26% of cycles result in a baby, but one third are multiple births, risking death, disability, brain damage and great costs in premature care.

Despite celebrating achievements and breakthroughs in IVF, Professor Lord Winston cites the commercialisation of treatment has resulted in failures by its regulatory body.

He said: “The UK multiple birth rate fell below 10% because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) made the excellent decision to persuade doctors to limit the embryos transferred, a policy first advocated nearly 30 years ago by the Genesis Research Trust in 1986.”

“But the HFEA has failed elsewhere. IVF became a massive private industry because the NHS did not provide more and better treatment. Moreover, some NHS clinics are not averse to failure because it is recognised that once patients have failed treatment and their NHS funding is consumed, the clinic can welcome them as private patients.

“The HFEA must do more in making stronger recommendations about IVF charges. For example, many experimental treatments during private IVF are extremely costly and are given without adequate scientific evidence of their efficacy. Patients should not have to pay these costs.”

Genesis Research Trust, the charity seeking better health for women and babies, raised £13 million to build and equip the most advanced research centre in Europe for Reproductive and Developmental Biology.  It also financed many innovations in IVF treatment and supported the first NHS clinic, based at Hammersmith Hospital, Imperial College.

Julia Margo, CEO of Genesis Research Trust, said: “There’s a growing concern around the psychological and financial fall-out for women and their families who undergo cycles of IVF and can experience a devastating ordeal because of false hopes with the misconception that IVF offers a miracle solution to infertility.”

Lord Winston, a Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London, said more research was urgently needed.

He said: “The financial rewards of private IVF are so great that it is difficult now to attract good academic staff.  Inevitably, young doctors finishing training seek the most lucrative employment.  It is clear that the success of IVF could be improved substantially, but without research – such as before Louise Brown’s birth – IVF will continue to cause great distress. More basic research and randomised controlled trials of experimental treatments are urgently needed.  The HFEA has not helped.  Indeed, its bureaucracy, inspection process, its charges and the process it uses to review research projects inhibit research.”