Test tube baby' scientist wins Nobel for Medicine
PARIS/MUNICH: A British physiologist and pioneer in reproductive medicine, Robert G Edwards , won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing in-vitro fertilisation . The former University of Cambridge professor, 85, will get the 10 million-kronor ($1.5 million) prize, the Nobel Assembly said Monday in Stockholm. His research partner, Patrick Steptoe, died in 1988.
Edwards and Steptoe, working in the face of opposition from church and government, created a procedure that led to the birth of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Their work made it possible to treat infertility, which affects more than 10% of all couples worldwide, the Nobel Assembly said.
Brown’s birth “was a paradigm shift and showed for the first time that it was possible to treat infertility,” Christer Hoog, a professor in molecular cell biology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, said at the Nobel news conference. “That single event is the most important part of Edwards’s achievement.”
As a young researcher, Edwards began work on mice reproduction. He studied fertilised eggs collected from female mice, which tend to ovulate at night, according to the citation when he won the Albert Lasker award for clinical medical research in 2001. After three years of midnight visits to the lab, he found a way to coax the animals to ovulate during daytime. He also developed a way to prod dormant eggs to mature outside the female’s body. Edwards began working on humans by persuading gynaecologists to give him slices of human ovaries from women who underwent surgery.
In 1969, he published a paper in which he described having achieved fertilisation outside a woman’s body. He joined forces with Steptoe, who collected ripened eggs directly from women’s ovaries.
Edwards worked on fertilising them in the lab. In 1972, they started trying to place the eggs in the womb of infertile women. On July 25, 1978, Brown was born using the procedure developed by Edwards and Steptoe.
“Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work,” Edwards said in an article accompanying his Lasker award acceptance speech. After Brown’s birth, Edwards said his work was halted for more than two years because he and Steptoe couldn’t gain government support.
Mike Macnamee, chief executive of Bourn Hall, the Cambridge clinic where Edwards and Steptoe first performed IVF, said Edwards and Steptoe were “pushing back frontiers.”
“The work at Bourn Hall in those heady days was directed at making the treatment more widely available and the patients were well aware that they too were making history,” Macnamee, who joined Edwards’s research team in the early 1980s, said in an e-mailed statement Monday. “There are now over 4 million IVF babies worldwide as a result of the techniques developed in Cambridge.”
Louise Brown’s parents first approached Edwards and Steptoe in 1976 about helping them conceive, because Lesley Brown had no fallopian tubes. “Me and mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves,” Louise Brown said in an e-mailed statement Monday.