IVF pioneer earns Nobel

Robert Geoffrey Edwards has this year's prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing the technique of in vitro fertilization

Oct 4, 2010
Vanessa Schipani
Robert Geoffrey Edwards, who developed in vitro fertilization (IVF) in humans, will receive this year's linkurl:Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.;http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2010/index.html
Human oocyte
Image:wikimedia commons/Ekem
The initially controversial technology has since produced more than 4 million babies worldwide to otherwise infertile parents. "This is a technique that has brought the joy of parenthood to millions of couples and thoroughly deserves to be acknowledged as a major scientific discovery with a great impact on human lives," linkurl:William Colledge,;http://www.pdn.cam.ac.uk/groups/colledgelab/index.html reproductive physiologist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said in an email to The Scientist."The prize will inevitably be a somewhat positive signal to the embryonic stem cell field," Xiangru Xu, a molecular biologist at Yale University, said in an email to The Scientist. Like stem cell research (ESC), he added, IVF was initially very controversial, but unlike ESC, it's now receiving the highest recognition possible.However, Prize committee secretary Goran Hansson told reporters that Edwards' award was not meant to signal support for ESC research. The committee members also denied a leak to the media, despite a number of Swedish papers correctly guessing Edwards as the laureate for Physiology or Medicine, before their announcement.When Edwards, now professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, started his research on infertility in the 1950s, scientists had already successfully fertilized eggs from rabbits in test tubes and produced young. It didn't take much time for Edwards to realize that fertilization outside of the uterus could be a viable option for human couples who were having issues conceiving. While on the road to developing IVF, Edwards made myriad discoveries that have contributed to researchers' understanding of the maturation of the human egg cell. For example, he deciphered how different hormones control the development of the egg, as well as when the egg is most receptive to fertilization. Finally, in 1969, all the hard work paid off when Edwards, for the first time in history, fertilized a human egg cell in a test tube.But the road to successfully producing a live, healthy baby in vitro was unpaved and rocky. Initially, the fertilized egg couldn't make it past single cell division. One possible flaw, Edwards guessed, was that the eggs needed to mature inside the ovaries and then subsequently be removed for IVF. Safe ways to accomplish this task, however, remained unknown at the time. With the help of Patrick Steptoe, once a gynecologist and medical researcher at Royal Oldham Hospital in the UK (now deceased), Edwards was able to fertilize eggs that developed into early embryos.Shortly after this advancement, however, the Medical Research Council cut funding on the project, citing ethical concerns about the technique. The MRC wasn't alone--Edwards received a great deal of criticism concerning the ethics behind his research from religious leaders and scientists alike. However, a private donation kept his research afloat.On July 25th 1978, years of research paid off when Louise Brown, daughter of Leslie and John Brown, was delivered by Caesarian section after a normal nine-month pregnancy.Today, over 4 million babies have been born using IVF therapy worldwide. The therapy has also improved significantly over the years. For example, individual sperm can now be inserted straight into the egg on a petri dish, side-stepping many causes of male infertility.Edwards, 85, was apparently in poor health when the committee contacted him this morning (October 4), but his wife received the news, and said she was "delighted," Hansson told reporters. "As one of Edwards' first research students I'm naturally delighted that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize," said linkurl:Martin Johnson,;http://www.pdn.cam.ac.uk/staff/johnson/ professor of reproductive sciences at the University of Cambridge. "He [is] a man much ahead of his time not just in IVF, but in preimplantation genetic diagnosis, the derivation of embryonic stem cells and also for his publications and lectures on ethics in science."linkurl:Bill Harris,;http://www.pdn.cam.ac.uk/staff/harris/index.html developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge, said he's "delighted that Bob Edwards won the Nobel Prize for his brave and historical work. It was done in research climate that was not tremendously supportive at the time. This is a brilliant example of how basic research, in this case into the biological basis of fertilization, can rapidly have an enormous positive impact on medicine and society."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:In vitro fertilization earns Nobel;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/57733/
[4th October 2010]*linkurl:NIH, stem cells: IVF ok, not SCNT;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55623/
[17th April 2009]*linkurl:Fertility Practices Meet Ethics Around the World;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/14770/
[21st June 2004]