How Understanding Reproductive Biology Enabled In-Vitro Fertilisation and Surrogacy

Since the earliest days of humanity, misconceptions about the mechanism of procreation have flourished. Some of the early ideas were so bizarre that they would be considered ludicrous today. One example was the Ancient Egyptian belief that sperm was the vehicle of the soul. Today, researchers have not only gained a thorough knowledge of reproductive biology and the various processes which this involves, but they have also developed a number of effective interventions designed to assist those couples who are unable to conceive naturally.

In 275 BC, a Greek scholar involved in the practice and teaching of medicine was the first to provide a reasonably accurate anatomical description of the male and female genital systems. However, he also maintained that the uterus consisted of two chambers, of which the right-hand one was for the growth of male embryos and the left chamber, for females. While a few more insightful ideas did emerge from time to time, only in the 17th century did the study of reproductive biology become subject to the principles of the scientific method first proposed by William Harvey. His studies finally concluded that an embryo was the result of the fusion of an ovum with a spermatozoon.

Interestingly, despite the lack of knowledge regarding conception, a number of reasonably effective, though equally bizarre, methods of contraception have been in use since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. They accidentally leveraged spermicidal properties displayed by various animal and plant materials, some of whose active ingredients are still used in contraceptive gels today. More significantly, it might surprise most readers to learn that the first documented attempt at artificial insemination based on new-found knowledge of reproductive biology occurred in the late 1700s. A Scottish surgeon named John Hunter advised a patient with an abnormality of the penis to collect his sperm in a warmed syringe and inject it into his wife’s vagina, which led to her pregnancy.

Despite Hunter’s success, it offered no value in cases of male infertility. It was a further 100 years before the first use of donor sperm which, although more widely-accepted today, was highly controversial at the time and is still banned in some countries.

Although these advances in reproductive biology encouraged researchers to become more adventurous, it was only in 1940 that the first attempt to fertilise a human ovum outside of the body proved successful. Without the technology to sustain the embryo and embed it in the womb, it was almost another four decades before Louise Joy Brown made world headlines as the first “test-tube baby” when she was delivered by C-section on July 25, 1978 in the UK. Since that historic date, the use of third parties to act as surrogate mothers and assist women who are unable to carry a child to term, as well as the freezing of male and female gametes for later use, has become common practice.

While these interventions have become routine and employ a variety of approaches, the practical application of reproductive biology is an exacting process that depends on a variety of advanced technologies, including techniques for harvesting, handling, and storing gametes and embryos. These techniques are made possible by the world-class equipment and reagents manufactured by Planer and supplied in South Africa by IEPSA.

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