Dr Sammy Lee was an early IVF pioneer.
Dr Sammy Lee, who is currently interested in stem cell therapy and human cloning is a charismatic and maverick scientist who is renowned for being an early IVF pioneer.
Last year, I was commissioned to write his biography titled Willing to die for it (published by and directly available from Murray Print. (Their last title was on the revolutionary Medical Officer of Health, Dr Raymond "Paddy" Donaldson). The book's title was inspired by Lee's obsessive dedication to his work which was ultimately responsible for his debilitating heart attack later on his career.
All I really knew about In vitro fertilisation before starting the book were graphic stories from infertile girlfriends who were desperately trying to successfully have an IVF baby. Luckily for me, Sammy Lee is such a fascinating raconteur, I was enthralled by the saga of his career and was quickly educated about this topical subject. And because Lee didn't want Willing to Die For It to specifically appeal to figures in the world of IVF: embryologists, scientists, and gynaecologists etc., the book also caters to non medic readers outside the world of academia.
Lee started at UCL before leaving the world of Academia for the then innovative world of IVF, but he is unlike any academically minded specimen I have ever met. He thinks laterally for a start.
He received his PhD in Biophysics from UCL under Dr Ricardo Miledi , the Mexican neuroscientist, but it was Sir Bernard Katz, the biophysicist Nobel Prize winner and incidentally Lee's chess opponent who 'unofficially' examined his thesis.
After this auspicious start and Lee's postdoctoral research period at UCL, he joined the Humana Wellington Hospital as a clinical embryologist a few years after Steptoe and Edwards (who were responsible for the birth of the world's first IVF baby Louise Brown) offered IVF to the nation. The NHS didn't want it then, but thanks to Lee's crusading efforts, the NHS eventually did.
Lee also worked at the Portland hospital, and helped pioneer GIFT (Gamete Intra-fallopian Transfer) in the UK and soon afterwards became the research director of a number of IVF units in the country. His IVF work helped the UK Industry grow from about 5000 cycles a year in 1986 to 37,000 a year in the early Noughties, now touching 50,000 a year, and he helped establish many of the eighty clinics now in existence. Lee contributed to the existence of many of the IVF babies in the United Kingdom' (a lot of them born to grateful famous parents) and was even turned into a character in the best selling debut novel of one of his grateful patients.
Lee is currently collaborating with various groups in the Anatomy Department at University College London examining the potential of bone marrow derived mesenchymal stem cells to give rise to neuronal/glial lineages in response to various growth factors and tissue culture manipulations. He also teaches ethics in reproduction at University College London.
'Anything I do is nothing, but what I'm trying to do is educate young people and in particular what I'm interested in is the ethics of reproduction.'
In addition, he is interested in tissue engineering, is also attached to the Jessen-Mirsky laboratory and is studying remyelination. Lee also has ethical committee approval in Brasil for creating artificial gametes from umbilical cord blood derived stem cells. It is hoped these will be used to overcome infertility.
As the planet is already over populated, it ideally makes sense for people to adopt but earth's inhabitants usually feel it's their mission to reproduce themselves.
The world of IVF is intriguing because it is constantly evolving. For example, a short while ago, it would have been incredulous to think female septuagenarians could have babies which has now been proved possible.
'The average age of IVF users is going up and up, because it's accessed mainly by the middle classes who are approaching their forties, ' Lee says.
He feels what he has done in the IVF field is not even a drop in the ocean. And as IVF has advanced in such a short period of time, it will be now be interesting to see if human cloning will be made legal. Judging by the rapid progress in IVF, it might be more likely 'when' than if.