The term 'test-tube baby" has become common in our modern lexicon, yet the large majority of us have no idea who developed the technique of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Despite our collective unawareness, the parents of the over four million babies born via IVF likely have heard of the scientist who made their bundles of joy possible. That man, British scientist Robert G. Edwards, has been awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for "the development of in vitro fertilization".
Approximately 10% of couples worldwide are either completely infertile or encounter significant difficulties when trying to conceive a baby. Before Dr. Edwards's advances in IVF, these couples were frequently unable to ever conceive. However, after over two decades of research that started in the 1950s, Dr. Edwards and his team of scientists finally proved successful on July 25, 1978, when the first IVF baby was born.
The initial decades of research that eventually led to the modern day technique of IVF were not without great controversy. Conducting research on human oocytes (eggs) sparked an ethical battle over the morality of the research. Despite promising early results from Dr. Edwards, the Medical Research Council decide to not fund further research. Only after a private donation was Dr. Edwards' research allowed to continue. Furthermore, the success of Dr. Edwards' research would not have been possible without the aid of gynecologist Patrick Steptoe. Dr. Steptoe used his clinical expertise of the ovary and mature oocytes to further expand Dr. Edwards insight toward developing IVF. Sadly, Dr. Steptoe died in 1988, and due to Nobel Institute's long-standing policy of not awarding Nobel Prizes posthumously, will not share the prize with Dr. Edwards.
Despite early calls for IVF research to be discontinued, Dr. Edwards and his team forged ahead, and the success stories of the earliest IVF children demonstrate the importance of the technique. Not only did Dr. Edwards' early research characterize the cell cycle of human oocytes, which turned out to be different than previously studied rabbit oocytes, IVF has helped millions of people have their proudest moment yet – that of a new parent. Studies have shown that children born of IVF are as healthy as naturally conceived children, and best of all, they themselves are fertile.
Robert G. Edwards was born in 1925 in Manchester, England. After military service in the Second World War, he studied biology at the University of Wales in Bangor and at Edinburgh University in Scotland, where he received his PhD in 1955 with a Thesis on embryonal development in mice. He became a staff scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London in 1958 and initiated his research on the human fertilization process. From 1963, Edwards worked in Cambridge, first at its university and later at Bourn Hall Clinic, the world's first IVF centre, which he founded together with Patrick Steptoe. Edwards was its research director for many years and he was also the editor of several leading scientific journals in the area of fertilization. Robert Edwards is currently professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge.
Stay tuned to pnosker.com for announcements of all the 2010 Nobel Prize winners!