IVF pioneer was tailor-made for solving infertility

IN vitro fertilisation (IVF) pioneer Professor Simon Fishel was never supposed to achieve much in life.

In fact, his former headteacher at Liverpool King David High warned his parents Joseph and Jane (nee Rosenblatt) that he would have to leave the school.

They were advised that Simon should take up a role in his father’s tailoring business.

Yet, somehow, the now-65-year-old ended up becoming head boy in 1971. And from there, he became a physiologist, biochemist and pioneer in IVF.

His journey is detailed in his new book, Breakthrough Babies (Practical Inspiration, £14.99), published this week.

But it is his Liverpool roots which he is most keen to discuss.

The father-of-four, of Kate, Matt, Bobby and Savannah, recalled: “What was fantastic in those days was that it didn’t matter how you did in your 11-plus exam — you would always be accepted into the school.

“Those who failed their 11-plus ended up in stream 1M, which is where I ended up. After a few weeks they moved me up to 1GB.

“It gave an opportunity to those who were academically poor when they were young, allowing for them to do better.

“Growing up, I liked my Judaism and the fact I could operate in a Jewish school, which still had around 30 per cent non-Jewish pupils.

“It was a happy multicultural environment. The community was vibrant, with around five active synagogues.”

A former member of the now defunct Greenbank Drive Hebrew Congregation, Simon is also part of the large Rosenblatt family.

On Sunday, he took part in a family reunion on the King David Campus for more than 150 members of the clan.

Most of Simon’s happy memories involved sport. He said: “I was captain of several sports teams, and played in midfield for Liverpool Haroldeans — my son Bobby is now carrying on that legacy.

“We were not as successful as the current side, but we were always up there in the Manchester Jewish Soccer League.”

His life then consisted of a series of wake up calls.

He said: “At school, the highest point I reached was around 27th in class. I was always happy as long as I wasn’t bottom.

“My finest achievement was getting into sixth form, although I only took two A-levels (biology and chemistry) as the school didn’t think I could cope with any more.

“I was also made head boy, but I’m sure this was down to me being a nice person who got on with everyone, rather than my academic side!”

After being advised to join his father’s business, Simon was adamant that he didn’t want to become a tailor.

“So I decided that I really needed to make an effort,” he told me.

“After leaving school, I taught for a year in a school in Speke because, in those days, they took assistant teachers to help with the children who needed it most, which is bizarre, as you would need special training for that now.

“I took myself off to night school to do additional maths and A-level economics because I wanted to go to university.

“I really grew up at that school, especially after ending up with my class of seven and 11-year-olds.

“It was a wake up call that, after playing about while at school rather than working, I had the rest of my life to consider.”

Simon went to Salford University where he read biochemistry and physiology, and he based himself in the heart of Manchester’s Jewish community in Broughton Park.

He lived in a room at the Singleton Road home of Mr and Mrs Dickson, which he described as “not the best, but the best thing that ever happened to me”.

Following a trend, he failed the first term of his course. Cue another wake up call.

His course tutor, Dave Power, took a shine to Simon and told him that if he repeated those results again, he would be kicked off the course.

He said: “If everyone tells you you’re stupid, then you start to believe it.

“But I pulled myself out of it, got As in all of my exams, and came out of the course with a first overall in biochemistry.”

He then went to Churchill College Cambridge, where he first came across Professor Robert Edwards.

Within a few short years of Simon teaming up with Robert and then Patrick Steptoe, the groundbreaking moment of the birth of the first IVF baby took place on July 25, 1978.

It had taken 10 years and 450 failed attempts, before Louise Brown was born.

He recalled: “Without the restrictions of today’s regulations, we tried everything and anything — within reason — in our quest to give infertile couples babies.

“There were dizzying highs, such as discovering and solving problems such as male infertility and how best to freeze eggs, but there were also crashing personal lows — not least the threat of bankruptcy and, most memorably, having a gun held to my head by a maverick colleague.”

And, in 1984, he nearly landed in jail due to the prevailing hostility towards IVF.

After publishing a paper with Prof Edwards in the journal Science, explaining how they had discovered the human embryo is the source of a substance called hCG (the hormone now detected by pregnancy tests), they were served with writs for murder by those believing an embryo was a human being.

He recalled: “I was consumed with worry for months until eventually the director of public prosecutions informed us that there was no case to answer.”

Simon then set up an IVF unit at Park Hospital in Nottingham, “where I also held an academic research post at the University of Nottingham,” he added.

“We continued to break boundaries, including proving that infertility affected men as well as women.

“Today I’d estimate at least 40 to 50 per cent of infertility cases are caused by problems with the sperm — a career high was inventing a micro-injection for sperm that couldn’t penetrate the shell of the egg, called Sub-Zonal Insemination (SUZI).

“Frustratingly, the governing body at the time wouldn’t allow me to use it on patients until I’d proved it was safe — but how could I do that without using it on patients?”

That very question led Simon to a “bizarre” journey to Italy to work with obstetrician Severino Antinori, who implored Simon to “do whatever you like and be a superstar”.

But superstardom was never important for him. Having set up an IVF clinic in Rome, he was now free to practice without UK restrictions.

He continued: “In 1990, I finally achieved the world’s first birth using SUZI: a baby girl, Maria Russo.

“Two years later, we had our first British SUZI success for a couple who had a son, James.

“But after three years with Antinori, his increasingly violent and aggressive nature led me to quit. Furious, he asked me to sign a hastily drawn-up contract stating I wouldn’t work for anyone else in IVF ever again.

“I protested and he took out a gun and put it to my temple. ‘Sign it! Otherwise, I kill you,’ he threatened.”

Needless to say, he signed the contract, packed his bags, and fled.

Skipping ahead several years, Simon set up the Centre for Assisted Reproduction (CARE), with his former employers at the Park IVF Clinic.

He now has clinics all over the country, treating both private and NHS patients.

He said: “These days, IVF seems commonplace: after all, it has led to the birth of eight million babies around the world.

“So it’s hard for us to imagine how far-fetched it felt back then.”

During his journey, Simon had the support of then-Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits.

In the early days of IVF, the Warnock Commission, of which Lord Jakobovits was a member, was set up to investigate whether or not it would be allowed in the UK.

Simon admits they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

Simon recalled: “His speciality was medical ethics, which led to some very interesting discussions. He wanted to understand exactly what I was doing and what it meant to the Jewish community.

“I was surprised that he supported some of the stuff, while other stuff he was not supportive of.

“He was not unsupportive of freezing embryos, but he couldn’t condone it due to his experience of the Nazis — he was uncomfortable with potential human beings sitting in a deep freeze with a potential of being abused.

“But he also understood the value of it and how it would allow a couple to have a child. He gave me another dimension and edge in the ethical debate.”

Looking back on his career, which he was quick to point out is not over yet, Simon summed it up with three words — blood, sweat and tears.

And at 65, he shows no signs of stopping. His newest venture aims to be as groundbreaking as his first. For he is now helping women to delay menopause.

“Every woman goes through menopause and, for the first time in human evolution, women will be in menopause longer than pre-menopause.

“Every major country that offers health care has thousands of women who have issues relating to it. But now, we are going to give young women the opportunity to delay and postpone menopause for what could be decades.

“We are going to offer women a way to naturally replace their own hormones, by removing part of one of their ovaries’ tissue — preferably when they are younger — slice it into millimetre strips and freeze it.

“When they approach the menopause, we graft it back, which then regenerates and produces their natural daily rhythmical hormones.

“This is in conjunction with the NHS and Birmingham University, and could save billions of pounds per year for the NHS.”

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