Paul Simms with daughter Sophie and wife Kayleigh

40 Fertile Years

20th July 2018

Four decades after the very first test-tube baby was born, Claire Lynn looks into some of the issues still surrounding fertility today…

‘Just relax…’ ‘keep trying…’ ‘you’ll be next…’ are just a few of the platitudes friends and family often give to couples struggling to conceive. They mean well, but it’s small comfort when everyone in the world is pregnant… and you’re not.

This misguided insouciance can sometimes extend to the medical profession too. Research commissioned by Bourn Hall Clinic, in partnership with the British Infertility Counselling Association, found that being young was often mistaken by GPs as a sign of fertility; couples in their twenties were often being told that they were ‘too young to have a problem and [should]try for longer’ and that this attitude was delaying a referral for fertility testing.

Bourn Hall’s medical experts advise that most couples will get pregnant within a year if they are actively trying and do not use contraception – so couples who have been unsuccessful after that length of time should seek help.

Next week marks the 40th birthday of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’. Her birth, on 25 July 1978, brought hope to many couples struggling with fertility issues and is one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of all time: a baby born as a result of the successful fertilisation of a human egg outside of the body and the transfer of the resulting embryo to the womb.
International interest in the story was so intense that journalists camped at the hospital where Louise was born and outside her parents’ house for weeks on end. The event made front-page news around the world and Church leaders, scientists and politicians entered into complex ethical debate about her birth and very existence.

IVF pioneers, gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and reproductive biologist Robert Edwards, who treated Louise’s parents, Lesley and John Brown, went on to set up Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge in 1980 – translating what had essentially been a research programme into a robust clinical practice. The techniques and drugs now used worldwide by fertility practitioners in IVF treatment were first developed at this Cambridge clinic.

Only a small number of people actually need to have IVF and the good news is that many people with subfertility can improve their chance of conceiving naturally by making simple lifestyle changes such as maintaining a healthy weight, improving nutrition, taking gentle exercise, reducing alcohol and quitting smoking.

The problem is that these measures won’t be successful if there is an underlying medical cause for the infertility and this can only be determined with testing. Fertility testing can reveal whether a woman has a good egg store and is releasing mature eggs regularly; if a man’s sperm is good quality and moving well and if there are blocked fallopian tubes, fibroids or other reasons for failure to conceive.

If a condition is identified, there are many ways of improving a couple’s fertility chances without IVF – such as the man taking nutritional supplements to improve his sperm quality or the woman being prescribed drugs to stimulate her ovulation.

In some cases a person already knows before they start trying for a baby that they might have a fertility problem.

One example is Paul Simms from Enfield, north London, who was diagnosed with bowel cancer when he was in his twenties and offered the opportunity to freeze his sperm before several rounds of radiotherapy, chemotherapy and major surgery.

“At the time I was single and, to be honest, being a father was the last thing on my mind,” confesses Paul, now aged 35. “But cancer treatment can often lead to infertility and so preserving my sperm seemed the right thing to do.”

Four years later, fully recovered from his cancer, Paul met Kayleigh and was open with her about the likelihood of fertility issues. After trying to conceive for a while without success, the couple consulted with doctors and specialists and learned that their chances of having a baby without assisted conception techniques would indeed be slim. They were referred for IVF and chose to go to Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge.

The couple’s IVF treatment involved thawing some of Paul’s frozen sperm and then undergoing a process called ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection) – directly injecting a single sperm in to each of Kayleigh’s harvested eggs to assist fertilisation in the laboratory, before transferring one of the resulting embryos to Kayleigh’s womb.

Paul and Kayleigh were delighted when their second round of treatment was successful and Kayleigh became pregnant. On 31 July 2016 daughter Sophie was born.
For Paul, confronting the issue around his fertility has been a complicated journey in itself: “It was quite tough. I am a man with an ego and it’s really hard to face up to that kind of thing. There is a lot of pride there. I’m quite good at blocking things out; sometimes it’s the way I deal with things.

Initially Paul felt very reticent. “When we went through IVF we didn’t tell many people, but as time went on I became less and less embarrassed. Although at the time I wasn’t, I’m now quite happy to talk openly about my experience.” Today, with his daughter in his arms, he says, “Fatherhood is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I’m grateful to be in this position… because for a time it didn’t feel like I’d be able to.”

In the 40 years since Louise Brown was born, the world has seen enormous improvement in fertility success due to IVF. New techniques such as the one used to treat Paul and Kayleigh have helped couples who previously might not have been able to become parents.

The baby who started it all is now Mrs Louise Mullinder, and a mother of two herself. Her parents and the IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards have all sadly passed away in the intervening years since her historic birth but their legacy lives on in all of those millions born as a result of IVF around the world.

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