The University of Calgary's link to Nobel Laureate Professor Robert Edwards

The 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology was awarded to Professor Robert Edwards in recognition of a lifetime of research into human reproduction. One result of his work was, in collaboration with Doctor Patrick Steptoe, the birth, in 1978, of Louise Brown, the world’s first baby conceived in the laboratory. In Vitro Fertilization had arrived.

While Bob Edwards spent his later years as a professor at Churchill College, Cambridge, his influence was first felt at the University of Calgary in 1967, and continued to loom large in succeeding years. We were privileged to be a part of the Calgary group from the start. It is on that basis we have been asked to contribute this piece.

Taylor's association with Bob Edwards began in 1969, and was renewed in 1987 when he left the University of Calgary to become Deputy Medical Director, and then Medical Director of Bourn Hall Clinic, successor to Patrick Steptoe, and colleague of Bob Edwards. His personal wheel had come full circle, but it is to the others of the Calgary group that tribute must be paid.

Bob Church was the founder of the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Calgary Medical School having learnt his trade working under the tutelage of C.H. Waddington and Forbes Robertson, and with such pioneers in the field as Anne McLaren and JLG Hancock at the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh. It was there that he first encountered Bob Edwards. In 1967, after a post-doc at the University of Washington Medical School, Church joined the University of Calgary’s Department of Biology which was headed by Jim Cragg. Upon arrival at the University of Calgary, Church established the first mouse embryo cancer colony. Some of his early doctoral students included Gil Schultz and Marvin Fritzler. Schultz went on to a stellar career in genetic research at the University of Calgary, and Fritzler became a distinguished immunologist. He later became a Professor of Medicine at the University of Calgary where he established himself as one of Canada’s leaders in the field of autoimmune disease.

Once the Medical School was established, under its first dean, Bill Cochrane, Church’s lab relocated there. His group was expanded in 1968/69 when David Dickson, an Ulsterman like Taylor, arrived as Professor and Chairman* of the Department of Morphological Sciences bringing with him his doctoral student, Paul Holmes. Their primary interest was in the metrial gland cells of the mouse.

The embryological basis for further human research was being firmly established.

Concurrently Taylor, still working in Ireland as a trainee Ob/Gyn, was sent to Oldham in Lancashire to learn the then new technique of laparoscopy under the tutelage of Doctor Patrick Steptoe. From time to time, everything stopped at the hospital, and a woman patient was brought to the OR. Another young man with an amazing haystack of hair, Bob Edwards, would have driven the 177 miles from Cambridge, and would be waiting as ovulation was imminent. Under laparoscopic guidance, a fine needle was inserted into the ripe Graafian follicle or follicles, the contents gently aspirated, and Edwards would scan the fluid under a microscope until, “Got an egg” was heard. Not only was Taylor fortunate enough to have been one of the first to have observed a ripe human egg as his experience grew, Steptoe allowed Taylor to aspirate follicles and retrieve eggs. Taylor confesses that while he was highly impressed by the enthusiasm of those two men—it is reported that no speed limit survived Edwards’ madcap rush back to his laboratory in Cambridge with his precious eggs—he was not convinced that they would succeed. They proved him wrong, but much happened before then.

In 1970 Church, David Dyrholm, and Ted Mitenko, joined together with vets from Brian Edge and Murray Jacobson’s Veterinary Clinic and, with help from Tim Rowson (1970/71) in Cambridge and his Australian student Ras Lawson, established the world’s first cattle embryo facility, Alberta Livestock Transplants, outside Calgary at Bearspaw. Purebred continental cows were inseminated with semen from purebred continental bulls. The embryos were then washed from the bovine oviduct and implanted in the prepared uterus of recipient, non-exotic cows. To help him in this work, Church was joined at various times by Alan Trounson (embryologist of the world’s second IVF baby in Melbourne; he later went on to head California’s $3 billion stem cell agency), Robin Tervitt, David Whittingham (who developed a technique for freezing semen and cow embryos), Ian Wilmut (who cloned the first mammal from an adult somatic cell, a sheep named Dolly), Steen Willadsen (the first person to clone a mammal using nuclear transfer; he also created the first geeps by splicing a goat embryo with a sheep embryo), as well as Brian Shea from McGill.

Meanwhile in 1971, Taylor joined the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. The Medical School at the University of Calgary was a different kind of place. It encouraged multi-disciplinary mingling, like the TGIF on the mall in which faculty, staff, and students gathered every Friday afternoon to share a beer and ideas. It wasn’t long before Church discovered Taylor’s ability with a laparoscope and invited him use his laparoscope on a cow to try and recover ovae.

No ovae were found. However, as Taylor introduced the ’scope through an incision dorsal to the animal’s hip bone, Church attempted to manipulate her uterus by introducing his gloved hand into her rectum. When Church grabbed the end of the ‘scope, Taylor said, “Bob, we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

And for a while scientifically and clinically, though not socially, this was the case.

Church’s team continued to prosper. In 1972, Gil Schultz (one of Church’s Ph.D students), following a post-doctoral fellowship at the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel and at the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver, returned to Calgary to take up a position in Church’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Schultz set up his own laboratory to study molecular aspects of gene expression in early embryos in experimental systems (mouse and rabbit), but he also helped with the bovine embryo transfer program at Alberta Livestock Transplants.

Meanwhile Taylor was developing a multidisciplinary human infertility clinic which was unique in Canada. The standard of the time was for the woman to see a gynaecologist, while the man, if he ever saw a physician, went to a urologist. If necessary, an endocrinologist was consulted. The Calgary model saw couples initially in consultation with a gynaecologist who also understood male reproduction. The Calgary group included Doctor Bernie Corenblum, Calgary’s first reproductive endocrinologist, and Doctor Jack Williams, a urologist with a special interest in male reproduction. Doctor Robert Page, a generalist gynaecologist contributed time as a triage officer. The first specialist nurse was Shirley Servis who was soon joined by Eileen Ekvall.

Over the years, full services, including tubal micro-surgery, stimulation of ovulation, therapeutic donor insemination, and male reproductive surgery were introduced.

Clinical research was actively pursued in the fields of prolactin metabolism, the applications of endoscopy, including the use of then cutting edge hysteroscopy, induction of ovulation with GnRh, microsurgery, unexplained infertility, and sperm immunology.

In 1976, Professor Harry Brody the first Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology died unexpectedly. His successor was the Regius Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Edinburgh, Melville Kerr who resigned from that post to come to Calgary. Although he had been heavily involved in infertility work, he stood aside and gave Taylor his head. Kerr encouraged Taylor to develop the first specialised Andrology semen laboratory and sperm cryopreservation facility. In 1980, Judy Fleetham, who had been working with eggs, sperm and early embryos in Gil Schultz’s research program, became one of the first specialist sperm technicians.

The time bomb erupted on July 25th 1978. Taylor was visiting his parents in Ulster when his father handed him the morning paper and asked, “What do you make of that?”

Taylor’s answer probably verged on the blasphemous because the headlines screamed, “World’s First Test Tube Baby.” Louise Joy Brown had arrived, and so had Steptoe and Edwards. The world of infertility would never be the same. (Gil Schultz was on sabbatical leave in Cambridge at the time. He was working with Martin Johnson, one of Edwards’ ex-students, and was fortunate enough to be invited to the big party where Louise Brown was announced.)

Kerr waited. Steptoe and Edwards had more successes. In 1980, Alex Lopata’s team in Melbourne, of whom Alan Trounson was the embryologist, was successful. In 1981, a group in America led by Howard Jones Jr. and Georgeanna Seegar-Jones was also successful. IVF was here to stay.

Taylor was encouraged by both Church and Kerr. The senior men convinced the Clara Christie Foundation to donate $300,000 to support Taylor’s program. Gil Schultz offered embryological support, but felt the programme needed a full time committed embryologist. Fritz Lorscheider, a physiologist, agreed to set up assays for same day reporting of estradiol, LH, and FSH levels. Doctor David Wiseman volunteered to carry out ultrasound ovarian scans. Taylor, Doctor Arthur Leader, an associate professor and the second full time gynaecologist at the clinic, and Doctor Tony Pattison would retrieve ovae and replace embryos. None would receive remuneration as this was considered to be a research project.

In 1983, Taylor was sent to Monash University in Melbourne to work with the team of Wood, Leton, Talbot, and Kovaks, and the Bob Edwards-Church alumnus, Alan Trounson.

While there Taylor recruited Doctor Mahendra Mahadevan, one of Trounson’s post-doctoral students, to join the Calgary team. He was ably assisted by Judy Fleetham who was already working in the semen laboratory. Meanwhile Kerr had been working miracles securing space in Foothills Hospital for an embryo laboratory contiguous with a daycare OR which would be available at short notice for egg recovery.

Judith Daniluk who was then a doctoral fellow working on “The Emotional Needs of Infertile Couples” rounded out the team by providing counseling.

We were in business.

In 1984, our first baby, the third in Canada to be conceived by IVF, was born. She was the result of a disappointing egg recovery where only one egg was harvested from nine follicles. David Wiseman retrieved it ultrasonically after Taylor had punctured eight follicles unsuccessfully. In the early weeks of the pregnancy what subsequently turned out to be a persistent corpus luteum was thought to be an ectopic pregnancy. Ironically, this had been the outcome of one of Steptoe and Edwards’ early attempts. However, the pregnancy progressed and was cared for successfully by Doctor ‘Betty’ Elizabeth Flagler.

The baby girl born in 1984 was married in 2010. Taylor treasures her wedding photograph.

From the success the clinic grew. Staff changed. After recruiting Doctor David Mortimer to be our second embryologist, Arthur Leader moved to a more senior position in Ottawa.  Mahendra Mahadevan went to Little Rock, Arkansas.

But all was not well.  Promises were not kept by the Alberta Ministry of Health to fund the programme. In 1986, it became necessary to increase the fee for one cycle of IVF from $350, moneys which supported one nurse, to $4,000, the realistic cost per treatment cycle.

Perhaps frustrated by this financial block, perhaps flattered to be invited, Taylor left to accept the post at Bourn Hall to work once again with Patrick Steptoe and Bob Edwards.

Congratulations Robert Edwards, and heartfelt thanks to all the pioneers who strove to conquer human infertility at the University of Calgary. Their work is ably carried on today by Doctors Cal Green, (Director) Joseph O’Keane, Selma Scott, B. Wong, S. Fong, and J Min, and their dedicated team of nurses, counsellors, pharmacists and laboratory staff ably led by the indefatigable Judy Fleetham.

* Titles in this article were those in use at the time.

--Submitted on behalf of Patrick J. Taylor and Robert B. Church

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