Imperial College London

40 years of IVF: How Imperial has made an impact in IVF



As Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby turns 40, we take a look at how Imperial has made its mark in IVF over the years.

Louise Brown’s birth on 25 July 1978 was a defining moment in fertility research that started the IVF revolution. 40 years on, IVF – or in vitro fertilisation – has been on a remarkable journey from the initial opposition and numerous failed attempts by the British researchers who pioneered the technique, to resulting in an estimated six million babies worldwide.

Whilst there have been many technological advances in IVF over the years, it is still relatively inefficient with less than 21 per cent of IVF cycles resulting in a live birth in the UK. IVF can also be financially and emotionally costly for many, highlighting the need for future intervention and ongoing research in this field.

Here at Imperial, we work closely with a number of partner organisations on new developments in fertility research.

The fertility treatment making IVF safer for mothers 

Professor Waljit Dhillo and team are working to make IVF a safer procedure. The new technique uses the natural hormone kisspeptin to stimulate egg development instead of the usual fertility drugs. Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) is a potentially life-threating side effect triggered by IVF drugs and their research has shown that kisspeptin can effectively and safely trigger egg maturation in women, especially those at high risk of OHSS.

Following a successful clinical study conducted at Hammersmith Hospital in 2014-15, they have recently received support from a US pharmaceutical company to conduct a larger randomised control trial which is required to take the compound forward to development.

Speaking on the progress of kisspeptin research, Professor Waljit Dhillo, Head of the Section Endocrinology and Investigative Medicine at the Department of Medicine, said: “This is a positive step forward to kisspeptin being included as standard clinical practice in IVF treatment. The collaborative nature of the College and partnerships such as Imperial College AHSC have helped take this research forward. At Hammersmith Campus, I’m a stone’s throw away from leading research facilities, clinicians and the Wolfson IVF unit – without these factors, kisspeptin wouldn’t be where it is.”

The largest collaboration of reproductive health researchers in the UK

Genesis Research Trust is an Imperial-based charity that funds original research to investigate why and how things can go wrong with conception, pregnancy and birth.

Since Genesis Research Trust was founded by Lord Winston in 1978 – the year of IVF success – they have supported numerous internationally-renowned scientists and doctors to collaborate across UK hospitals, universities and Imperial’s own research facilities, to speed the pace of progress and ensure that we continue to make progress in the field of IVF.

Read more about the Genesis Research Trust’s #IVF40 campaign.

Lord Professor Robert Winston – leading fertility expert and educator

Lord WinstonLord Winston, Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial and Chairman of the Genesis Research Trust has a long-standing history in the field of IVF. In 1982, Lord Winston set up the IVF service at Hammersmith Hospital, the Wolfson Fertility Centre, which pioneered various improvements in reproductive technology.

Today the Wolfson Fertility Centre is one of the UK’s most prominent IVF clinics and continues to offer treatment on the NHS at a time when a growing number of areas in England are cutting IVF services on the NHS. Lord Winston also led the IVF team at Hammersmith Hospital that pioneered pre-implantation genetic diagnosis – the techniques to screen out inherited diseases.

Lord Winston is a critic of the over-commercialisation of the industry and recently warned that advances in infertility treatments may be hampered by unnecessary over-regulation.

Writing in an editorial in a special edition of the journal Reproduction, he explains that more advances in this area of reproductive health could and should have been made by now, saying: “It must be possible to improve IVF beyond a 1 in 5 success rate but more research is needed and in many countries this has declined and randomised clinical trials are rare.”

Innovative IVF unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital

IVFTo meet the rising demand for IVF services in the mid-1990s, Imperial’s Professor Mark Johnson set up a brand-new IVF unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in 1995. The IVF unit was predicted to fail within six months, however, despite the challenges, the IVF Unit took a positive turn of events and was actually highly successful. The clinical pregnancy rate per treatment cycle for women over 38 was the third best in the UK (31.5%). 

Professor Mark Johnson, now Clinical Chair in Obstetrics at the Department of Surgery and Cancer, said: “We felt that at Chelsea and Westminster we should provide IVF services but at a cost price so that we weren’t making a profit in the case of most private IVF clinics. We even provided the IVF drugs at a cost price by persuading the pharmaceutical companies to offer the best price.”

Now called the Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals Assisted Conception Unit, it is one of the most successful fertility units in the UK and has treated more than 1,000 couples. 

Mathematical models could help manage inheritance of deadly genetic diseases for IVF couples

Fertility research at Imperial draws on many cross-Faculty projects, including in the some of the most unlikely departments.

A study co-led by Dr Nick Jones, from the Department of Mathematics, has found the chance of passing on certain types of genetic diseases changes with the age of the mother. The finding could help couples conceiving through IVF to select eggs least likely to cause the diseases in their children, if the results are also true for humans.

Mitochondria are components of all human cells that contain their own unique DNA. This mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is only passed from mother to child. Some mtDNA molecules can cause deadly diseases, where the mitochondria fail to produce enough energy for cells or organs to function

Older mothers therefore will have some eggs that have a much lower level of potentially deadly mtDNA, but also some that have a much higher level. Being able to choose which eggs to fertilise in IVF could improve the chance of having a child without mitochondrial disease.




Ellyw Evans

Ellyw Evans
National Heart & Lung Institute

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