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October 4, 2010

Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine Awarded For In Vitro Fertilization

Awards: Robert Edwards gets nod for pioneering a treatment for infertility

Sarah Everts

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Copyright Bourn Hall

Development of in vitro fertilization (IVF), an infertility treatment in which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the human body and then later implanted into a woman's uterus so that she becomes pregnant has garnered Robert Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, England, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The honor comes with $1.5 million in prize money.

Edwards "achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10% of all couples worldwide," notes the Nobel Prize announcement. Edwards, 85, is also a founder of the Bourn Hall Clinic, a center for IVF treatment in Cambridge.

At a press conference in Sweden this morning, Göran K. Hansson, the secretary of the Nobel Prize Committee, said that Edwards is in poor health and so the news of his award was communicated by telephone to his wife, Ruth Fowler, "who said she was delighted and was sure he would also be delighted."

"Every clinician in the field of reproductive medicine worldwide will celebrate in the news of this award to Robert Edwards," comments Enda McVeigh, the medical director of Oxford University Fertility Unit. "IVF changed millions of peoples' lives and continues to give hope to so many couples. IVF has also opened door in new areas--pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and stem cells to name but two," McVeigh adds.

Edwards got the idea for IVF in the 1950s while still a Ph.D. student at University of Edinburgh in Scotland. In 1968, Edwards began a research partnership with Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist, which led to the first egg fertilization in vitro. Steptoe was not eligible for the Nobel Prize because he passed away in 1988.

It took Edwards and his research unit until July 25, 1978 for the first baby to be born through IVF treatment. "It is hard to put into words what the occasion of her birth meant to me, and to our wonderful supportive team," wrote Edwards, in a 2001 article in Nature Medicine (7, 1091). The birth came "to the delight of the parents, staff and ourselves." That first IVF child, Louise Joy Brown, gave birth to a naturally conceived son in 2006.

The pursuit of IVF "was not easy for Edwards. At the start of his research he was not supported by the 'establishment' in the UK," comments McVeigh. For example, the U.K.'s Medical Research Council discontinued funding of his research. Some ethicists, certain religious groups, and parts of the media lobbied against his research, McVeigh adds.

"I had to issue eight libel actions in the High Court of London on a single day," wrote Edwards in his Nature Medicine article. "I won them all, but the work and worry restricted research for several years."

This year, approximately 4 million babies will be born by means of IVF, with 1 to 2 percent of all newborns in the European Union, USA, and Australia being conceived by the method, says Christer Höög, a professor of Molecular Cell Biology for the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, speaking at the Nobel press conference.

Hours before the Nobel committee's official declaration, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, citing unnamed sources, named Edwards the leading candidate for the prize. During the press conference Hansson rebuffed a question by a journalist about a possible leak from the Nobel Prize committee, instead suggesting that the article had been mere speculation.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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