Father of IVF acknowledged with a Nobel prize

Professor Robert Edwards who came to be known as the “father of In Vitro fertilization” (IVF) has won this year's Nobel prize in medicine. He is 85 and has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his pioneering work on the in vitro fertilisation of human eggs that led to the birth of the world's first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. When he had started off initially his funding request for IVF research was turned down by Britain’s Medical Research Council (MRC) in the 1970s. His co-worker the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe, died in 1988. Professor Edwards becomes the sole recipient of this award since it cannot be awarded posthumously.

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden feel that Professor Edward’s contribution to IVF is a milestone in medicine. It is thanks to his work that an estimated 4.5 million “test tube” babies have been born globally over the past 32 years. In its citation, the Nobel medicine prize committee in Stockholm said: “His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10 per cent of all couples worldwide. Approximately four million individuals have been born thanks to IVF. Today, Robert Edwards' vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world.”

As congratulations flow in, Dr. Declan Mulkeen, director of research at the MRC said, “The MRC is delighted by the award which recognizes Professor Edwards' dedication to ensuring his early research translated into clinical practice…The MRC didn't fund Edwards' work in the 1970s for a range of reasons, including safety and ethical reservations present at the time. In the 1970s, infertility research was given a lower prominence in research funding priorities and in clinical practice.”

At present Professor Edwards is of frail health. He recalls his experiments in great details. Steptoe and Edwards went on to create the first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall in Cambridge against the fierce opposition from religious authorities and scientific colleagues.

Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society said, “The work of Professor Edwards exemplifies the ethos of the Royal Society... applying visionary, extraordinary research to change the lives of people all over the world.” David Willetts, the Science Minister, said that Professor Edwards' achievements in IVF research brought hope and happiness to millions of families, while Sir Ian Wilmut, a pioneer of cloning, said the technology had provided the opportunity to study and understand early human development.

Dr Edwards in his years after school served in the British Army, and then completed his undergraduate studies in agriculture at the University of Wales, Bangor. Subsequently he studied at the Institute of Animal Genetics, University of Edinburgh. He received his Ph.D. in 1955 and joined the University of Cambridge in 1963. In about 1960 Edwards started to study human fertilization, and he continued his work at Cambridge. In 1968 he was able to achieve fertilization of a human egg in the laboratory and started to collaborate with Patrick Steptoe, from Oldham. Edwards developed human culture media to allow the fertilization and early embryo culture, while Steptoe utilized laparoscopy to recover ovocytes from patients with tubal infertility.

There is a strong opposition to this decision by the Vatican officials. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life believes that this award ignores the ethical questions raised by the fertility treatment. He said that there are reservations regarding the destruction of large numbers of human embryos with IVF. He said the Nobel prize committee's choice of Prof Edwards had been “completely out of order” as without his treatment, there would be no market for human eggs “and there would not be a large number of freezers filled with embryos in the world.” “In the best of cases they are transferred into a uterus but most probably they will end up abandoned or dead, which is a problem for which the new Nobel prize winner is responsible,” he added. Mr Carrasco stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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