Early History of Embryo Research

Until the 1990s most research involving human embryos was directed toward improving the chances for pregnancy in laboratory-assisted conception. These investigations, in turn, were based on many years of research with animal models, where virtually all research in the United States has been supported with federal funding. It was hoped that procedures developed in animal studies could later be applied to human reproduction and embryology, especially to the understanding and alleviation of human infertility.

Attempts at laboratory fertilization of human oocytes (precursor eggs) showed some promise as early as 1944 in the work of American obstetrician-gynecologist John Rock and scientist Miriam Menkin. From that time until the birth of the first child conceived through IVF in 1978, various approaches were tried in order to achieve a pregnancy and live birth. The work of Robert Edwards, British reproductive endocrinologist, culminated in the birth of Louise Brown after he collaborated with Patrick Steptoe, an obstetrician who utilized laporoscopy for viewing and recovering a mature ovarian follicle containing an oocyte capable of fertilization.

According to embryologist Jonathan Van Blerkom, most current methods used in laboratory-based treatment of infertility have evolved from those used by Edwards and Steptoe and their predecessors. According to Van Blerkom, this work "established the basic science foundation of clinical IVF" (p. 9). Without these four decades of research on fertilizing oocytes, accompanied by study of the early cleavage and development of fertilized eggs or zygotes, the clinical practice of IVF, which is an almost universally accepted primary treatment for infertility, would not exist.

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