By Dov Michaeli

On October 4 Dr. Edwards, a 90 year old Cambridge physiologist, was awarded the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine for his pioneering work in IVF (in vitro fertilization).  His story is one of dogged determination in the face of almost universal condemnation, both by the Church and by the medical establishment, each for its own reason. The Church raised ethical issues about creating humans through an artificial process; procreation is a process reserved by God for husband and wife only. They also raised the specter of human cloning, commoditizing human beings. Scientists and clinicians worried that all kinds of deformities would afflict the “test tube baby”. Of course none of those scary scenarios materialized. In 1978, Louise Brown, the first IVF baby was born, completely normal and healthy. She is now a 32 year old woman completely indistinguishable from any other healthy woman her age. Since then some 4 million babies have been born following an IVF procedure. The procedure is not perfect –only about 30% result in live births. But believe it or not, it is superior to the results of Mother Nature herself –only 20% of all embryos successfully implant in the uterus. And the fierce condemnations Dr. Edwards had to endure? The Vatican issued its obligatory criticism, more in resignation than conviction.

“I find the choice of Robert Edwards completely out of order,” said Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which speaks for the Vatican on medical ethics issues.

“Without Edwards, there would not be a market on which millions of ovocytes are sold … and there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world. In the best of cases they are transferred into a uterus, but most probably they will end up abandoned or dead, which is a problem for which the new Nobel Prize winner is responsible.”

Embryonic Stem cells therapy

It is quite fitting that in the same week of the Nobel Prize announcement there was another announcement, of equal importance. The first patient with a spinal cord injury was injected with embryonic stem cells, in an attempt to regenerate the damaged cord.

I find it quite amazing how things tend to connect in history. It was Edwards’ work with human embryos that contributed to the breakthroughs that occurred 20 years after the birth of Louise Brown in isolating and propagating stem cells obtained from these embryos. In 1998 James Thomson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, successfully removed cells from spare embryos at fertility clinics and grew them in the laboratory. He launched stem cell research into the limelight, establishing the world’s first human embryonic stem cell line which still exists today. The condemnation from the Church came fast and furious.

 There were several arguments against IVF. The church railed that this procedure interfered with a divine plan, that the procedure involved the destruction of fertilized eggs (potential human beings) that were not selected for implantation, and that even if the procedure had a worthy end, it was a slippery slope the end of which could not be imagined. Others, among them social scientists, policy thinkers and politicians asked why should we make it possible to circumvent nature’s birth control in the face of an overpopulated world. Others worried about the creation of people with genetic, anatomical, physiological defects and psychological problems. In fact, the MRC (the British equivalent of NIH) refused to fund Dr. Edwards’ research for these reasons.

All these arguments withered under the weight of reality. God’s ways have always been mysterious, and remain so. No “slippery slope” ever materialized. No “defective” babies have been created. And the world population did not explode as a result of IVF. In fact, I suspect that many of the four million IVF babies are members of the very churches that had fought their birth.

Some of the very same arguments are now raised in the big debate we are having about embryonic stem cell research. But they will fail to carry the day. Embryonic stem cell research and yes, now we can say therapy, will become a non-issue just as IVF has become. What is the basis for my confidence?

The Spread of Ideas.

Many studies have documented that the spread of ideas mimics the dispersal mode of virus epidemics. It follows the routes of social contacts, starting slowly with immediate contacts who in turn spread it to their own contacts, and so it gathers exponential momentum as the circle of social contacts expands. A major subject of such studies is the spread of religion(s) around the globe. The idea that smoking is socially “not cool” spread along social networks.  Even the social acceptability of obesity was shown to spread in this manner. Predictably, the advent of virtual social networks accelerated this process by orders of magnitude. The idea that IVF was a totally acceptable, non-controversial issue owes its existence to such networks, real and virtual, once completely normal IVF babies became commonplace. 

Now that the first patient with spinal cord injury is receiving embryonic stem cells to generate new neurons, the end to this argument is in sight. Once the first paraplegic patient is shown on YouTube making his of her first halting steps, all the dire religious, ethical and quasi-scientific objections will sound hollow, if not ridiculous.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.