from 1 to a few million in less than 50 years

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The idea of ​​so-called “test tube babies” (technically called in vitro fertilization) is not new, but it has developed and matured incredibly quickly – to the point where in developed countries it has become a phenomenon. fairly routine procedure. The technique can help solve fertility issues, allowing millions of people to conceive.

But the technique can be used for more than just design. The method has been used to screen for embryos with inherited genetic diseases, and even for characteristics that are not related to the diseases, such as sex selection, which has raised a number of ethical questions and concerns.

Image credits: Jan Canty

IVF is the same process that was once used in the late 1970s to give birth to the world’s first test tube baby, and since then it has come a long way.

When a couple is unable to conceive children naturally (whether due to physiological or reproductive problems), doctors perform artificial fertilization of their sperm and egg under laboratory conditions. This external fertilization in the laboratory is called IVF and the baby born using this method is colloquially called the test tube baby.

Around eight million children have been born through IVF worldwide so far, but IVF is not just about childbirth. Entrepreneurs and many doctors experts believe that IVF could also play a key role in human genetic engineering, genetic diagnostics and many other advanced medical technologies in the future. For these reasons, the technology has attracted quite a bit of criticism.

History of IVF and the first test tube baby

In 1891, Walter Heape, professor at Cambridge University, carried out the very first mammalian embryo transfer. More than 50 years later, American scientists John Rock and Miriam Menkin introduced the concept of biochemical pregnancy by extracting and fertilizing oocytes (immature eggs) and sperm in vitro.

In 1958, an article concerning in vitro fertilization was published in Nature by researchers Anne Mclaren and John Bigger, it was the first study to suggest that fertilization outside a woman’s body is possible. The following year, biologist MC Chang performed a successful experiment involving the birth of a living rabbit using in vitro fertilization, this revolutionary achievement led to a series of in vitro fertilization experiments around the world. Things were moving fast and already, researchers were starting to look forward to the world’s first “test tube baby”. But the time had not yet come.

In vitro fertilization using human gametocytes (the precursors of male and female reproductive cells) would not be carried out until 1973, when a team of Australian embryologists (Alan Trounson, Carl Wood, John Leeton) created a conceived human embryo biochemically that survived for only a few days. In the same year, American gynecologist Landrum Shettles also attempted to perform a human IVF experiment, but had to cancel the same for unknown reasons. Then it finally happened.

In November 1977, Lesley Brown and her husband Peter Brown decided to conceive a child through IVF. The couple had their gametocytes fertilized on a lab box at Dr Kershaw’s hospice in Royton, England, under the supervision of Dr Patrick Steptoe, Dr Robert Edwards and embryologist Jean Purdy. About nine months later, Lesley gave birth to the world’s first test tube baby, Louise Joy Brown, on July 25, 1978.

The published news of the first test tube baby.
The birth of Louise Brown made the headlines. Daily mail issue published July 27, 1978.

Just two months after Louise was born, a second test tube baby was born in Kolkata, India. The newborn girl was called Durga and Dr Subhash Mukharjee and embryologist Sunit Kumar Mukharjee were responsible for her conception by IVF.

Louise and Durga (official name – Kanupriya Agarwal) are now 43 years old and are mothers of naturally born children. Louise’s younger sister, Natalie, was also born by IVF and she was the first person born by IVF to give birth to children.

For his outstanding work in the field of in vitro fertilization, Robert Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Steptoe and Purdy were deceased by then, so they weren’t eligible for the prize.

Facts about IVF

In vitro fertilization in progress.
In vitro fertilization (IVF). Image credits: Dr KontogianniIVF / Pixapay

After IVF has enabled hundreds of thousands of families to have children of their own, Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) has become the most effective treatment for infertility. However, there are various myths and shocking facts associated with test tube babies which also make them a controversial topic:

  • IVF has been the subject of debate among various religious communities. The Catholic Church and many Sunni Islamic scholars have not been in favor of IVF because they believe that assisted reproduction techniques are immoral and interfere with the natural process of reproduction. Several religious groups are against this practice.
  • Unmarried couples and people with certain types of contagious diseases are not allowed to undergo IVF in China. In India, IVF is allowed to conceive children, but prenatal sexual discernment (detecting the sex of the fetus) through IVF is a punishable crime.
  • In the United States, pineapple (the fruit) has become a symbol of hope among many couples facing infertility or undergoing IVF treatment. People tend to believe that eating pineapple increases the likelihood of being pregnant. However, there is no scientific evidence or research that validates this belief.
  • Many people also believe that there is no risk of an ectopic pregnancy when a couple conceives a child through in vitro fertilization. This is not true because research reveals that while the possibility of ectopic pregnancy in IVF is between 2 and 8.6%, it is only 1 to 2% in case of natural conception.
  • There is plenty of room for IVF to develop, and it probably will. In the United States alone, infertility affects 10% of women, and about 1.9% of all infants born in the United States each year are conceived using assisted reproduction techniques.
  • Many factors affect IVF success rates, but the most important factor determining success rates is a woman’s age. However, while complications are not uncommon after the age of 40, much older women can give birth through IVF. Until recently, Adriana Iliescu from Romania held the record for the oldest woman to give birth by IVF and donor egg, when she gave birth in 2004 at the age of 66. In September 2019, a 74-year-old woman became the oldest to give birth after giving birth to twins at a hospital in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
  • In the United States, the average IVF. cycle can cost anywhere from $ 12,000 to $ 25,000. Prices may vary in other parts of the world, but this is still a relatively expensive technique.

Impact and future of the test tube baby technique

In addition to families facing infertility, the test tube method has also made it possible for same-sex couples, singles and old-fashioned life partners to conceive children. IVF techniques have made parenting accessible to more humans than ever before.

Many couples who previously faced infertility are now benefiting from parenthood through IVF treatment.
A mother playing with her child at the beach. Source: Pixabay / pexels

According to a report, the IVF market is expected to reach approximately $ 25.56 billion by 2026. Increased delays in pregnancy among young people, the increased birth success rate and the growing acceptance of IVF also indicate that the test tube baby technique (as well as other ART methods such as artificial insemination, surrogacy, etc.) will become more popular in the coming years.

The birth success rate of test tube babies has also increased dramatically over the years and now amounts to 52% (for people under 35). During IVF treatment, doctors are able to choose an embryo that is least likely to carry genetic disorders. In addition, scientists are now trying to go further, they are looking for ways to manipulate the genes of embryos in vitro so that genetically superior individuals can be born. Needless to say, many other scientists (and important parts of civil society) are strongly opposed to this idea.

Concerns remain about the potential use of IVF and related techniques for eugenics – enhancing the embryo through the selection of desired inherited traits. If you could make your baby bigger, smarter, and have blue eyes, would you? Millions probably would, but it opens a box of worms that many researchers and philosophers fear could steer humanity down a darker path that could get out of hand and lead to discrimination and in the long run, to augment the risk of extinction of our species due to a reduced wealth of genetic heritage.

Ultimately, technology has had a significant and positive impact on humanity, and will likely continue to have an increasing impact as technology advances. The debate over what is acceptable for IVF is still unresolved, and the discussion will likely continue for decades and centuries. It is up to researchers and civil society to try to steer technology in an always positive direction and to stay away from dystopian applications.


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