The Science of Reproductive Biology Offers Hope to the Childless

No doubt, for many of those reading this article, the topic of reproductive biology will conjure memories of an unforgettable half-hour during their high school days when a teacher introduced them to the mysteries of procreation. Equally memorable would have been the mixture of giggles and blushes that accompanied his or her apparent revelations. In practice, however, it is a term that, for others, has a very different meaning and one that emerged quite a bit earlier than most people might have thought.

The first recorded attempts to artificially inseminate a human female took place between 1845 and 1849 when an American physician used the sperm from a donor to inseminate 55 infertile slaves. Although only one actually conceived and eventually miscarried, a basic principle was established and a new, fledgling science that would, in time, become known as assisted reproductive biology, or simply assisted reproduction, began to emerge. Some 40 years later, another American physician proved to be more successful when a woman whose husband was sterile gave birth to a healthy baby boy after she had been artificially inseminated using sperm he had collected from one of his medical students.

In fact, artificial insemination was first applied on dogs by an Italian researcher as early as 1780 and was already being practiced quite extensively on other animals at the time when the first attempts were being made on human subjects. Not surprisingly, the next major advance in this emerging new field was also the result of animal experimentation. 1934 saw the first successful in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) using the male and female gametes harvested from rabbits. Since then, this same principle has become an invaluable addition to assisted reproductive biology procedures in human subjects.

While efforts to perfect the process continued throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, legal and ethical considerations meant that the results of those researching this field were not always made public. In 1978, however, a British gynaecologist named Dr Patrick Steptoe took an embryo from a successful in-vitro fertilisation between sperm and ova taken from a childless couple, and transplanted it into the wife’s womb. Mrs Lesley Brown subsequently made history when, after a normal pregnancy, she gave birth to Louise Joy Brown, who became immortalised as the world’s first “test tube” baby.

This was the long-awaited revolution that saw reproductive biology grab the headlines in newspapers throughout the world. Since that date, in the US alone, more than 200 000 babies have been conceived and born with the help of in-vitro fertilisation and India has become a leading destination for fertility tourism with more than 3 000 IVF clinics now providing services to infertile couples at prices well below those of western clinics.

Both artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilisation are highly exacting procedures that require painstaking care and a controlled environment. In fact, much of the credit for the high success rate in this field can be attributed to the efforts of the manufacturers of the specialised equipment and materials upon which reproductive biology is crucially dependent. Cryo Bio System, an internationally recognised leader in this increasingly important field, offers everything necessary for the harvesting and safe handling of human gametes. The company’s complete range of products is available in South Africa from IEPSA.

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