Alan Trounson: The path from IVF scientist to international stem cell advocate

CIRM president Alan Trounson was one of the early scientists working to help women get pregnant through in vitro fertilization. His team was responsible for the eight of the first 10 IVF babies born in Australia. Five million babies have now been born worldwide using the technique.

Trounson’s work in that field is what led him to stem cell science. The technique mixes sperm and egg in a lab dish to develop embryos that can be implanted into a woman’s uterus. Left over embryos from IVF are the source for human embryonic stem cells.

In a story in Western Australia Today, Trouson talks about applying what he learned earlier in his career to his role leading CIRM. Most importantly, patience.

”Like with 5 million babies, it takes a good 25 years to embed into society that this science may be a good thing. It takes a long time for clinical trials – often it’s seven to nine years before research gets to be put to use in general medicine.”

Since coming to CIRM in 2008, Trounson has been a strong advocate for building international teams of researchers. The agency now has agreements with 20 international funding agencies, U.S. states and foundations which have contributed to 25 CIRM-funded projects. (You can read more about those collaborations on our website.)

”I am a global scientist, sort of a facilitator, trying to get the world’s best scientists to not only work together but work with health authorities and institutes in various countries,” Trounson says. ”This combined effort is making stem-cell research more effective globally, and it’s possibly unique in the area of medical research.”

In the WAToday piece, Trouson pointed to HIV, diabetes, brain tumors, leukemia, forms of blindness and heart disease as areas where projects funded by the agency could soon be entering clinical trials.

A related story profiles Trounson’s oldest daughter Kylie, who is a playwrite. In that story she recounts how she came to understand IVF research, which was highly controversial at the time.

”My experience of IVF was being four years old and not allowed to answer the home phone because it could be right-to-lifers calling with threats against Dad, or people going through our rubbish, or driving past the old convent on St Georges Road just after I’d learned to read and reading out ‘Alan Trounson is a baby murderer’ to my mum, who’s driving and going, ‘Oh god, why did I teach this kid to read so early?’ ”

She has written a play about those early days of IVF research. Trounson urged her to make the women entering IVF trials the heros of the play.

“They were the truly selfless people in this picture; they went through all of this, didn’t get a baby of their own but really felt that they had contributed to the science.”

A.A.

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