Published October 04, 2010
STOCKHOLM – Robert Edwards of Britain won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for developing in vitro fertilization, a breakthrough that has helped millions of infertile couples have children but also ignited an enduring controversy with religious groups.
Edwards, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, started working on IVF as early as the 1950s. He developed the technique — in which eggs are removed from a woman, fertilized outside her body and then implanted into the womb — together with British gynecologist surgeon Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988.
On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown in Britain became the first baby born through the groundbreaking procedure, marking a revolution in fertility treatment.
Since then, some 4 million people have been born using the technique, the Nobel medicine prize committee said — a rate that is up to about 300,000 babies worldwide a year, according to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.
Today, the probability that an infertile couple will take home a baby after a cycle of IVF is 1 in 5, about the same odds that healthy couples have of conceiving naturally.
"His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10 percent of all couples worldwide," the committee in Stockholm said in its citation. "Today, Robert Edwards' vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world."
Despite facing resistance from Britain's medical establishment, Steptoe and Edwards spent years developing IVF from early beginning experiments into a practical course of medicine. In 1980, they founded the world's first IVF clinic, at Bourn Hall in Cambridge, England.
Prize committee secretary Goran Hansson said Edwards was not in good health Monday when the committee tried to reach him. Bourn Hall said Edwards was too ill to give interviews.
"I spoke to his wife and she was delighted and she was sure he would be delighted too," Hansson told reporters in Stockholm after announcing the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award.
Brown, now 32, gave birth to her first child in 2007, a boy named Cameron who she said was conceived naturally.
"Louise's birth signified so much," Edwards said at Brown's 25th birthday celebration in 2003. "We had to fight a lot of opposition but we had concepts that we thought would work and they worked."
Brown paid tribute Monday to the man who gave her life.
"It's fantastic news, me and mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations," Brown, a postal worker living in Bristol, England, said in a statement released by Bourn Hall.
The work by Edwards and Steptoe stirred a "lively ethical debate," the Nobel citation said, with the Vatican, other religious leaders and some scientists demanding the project be stopped. The British Medical Research Council in 1971 declined funding for Steptoe and Edwards, but the two found a private donation that allowed them to continue their research.
The Vatican is opposed to IVF because it involves separating conception from the "conjugal act" — sexual intercourse between a husband and wife — and often results in the destruction of eggs that are taken from a woman but not used.
There was no immediate comment from the Vatican's top bioethics officials Monday to word of the Nobel.
It was not immediately clear why it took the Nobel committee so long to honor Edwards. Nobel rules were amended in 1974 to prohibit posthumous prizes, which ruled out a shared award with Steptoe. However, Hansson said Edwards "deserves a Nobel Prize on his own" because he made the fundamental discoveries that made IVF therapy possible.
Initially there was also concern about the health of test-tube babies, "so it was of course very, very important that Louise Brown was healthy and that subsequent babies also were healthy," prize committee member Christer Hoog said.
Aleksander Giwercman, head of reproduction research at the University of Lund in Sweden, said Edwards' achievements also provided tools for other areas of research, including cancer and stem cells.
"Many of the illnesses that develop when we are adults have their origin early on in life, during conception," Giwercman said.
The controversy over in vitro fertilization has not dimmed despite its increasing popularity, and debate centers now on who should be able to use the technology. Some experts have questioned whether an age limit should be set on would-be parents, whether women and men who donate their eggs and sperm should be paid, and if gay couples should be eligible.
In France, for instance, lesbians are not allowed to use donor sperm, and in Britain, women cannot be paid more than 250 pounds ($384) for donating their eggs. Germany and Italy both forbid the freezing of embryos.
In 2006, a 67-year-old Spanish woman made headlines around the world when she became a mother after using IVF technology to conceive twins. The uproar continued when she herself died only two years later.
In a statement, Bourn Hall said one of Edwards' proudest moments was discovering that 1,000 IVF babies had been born at the clinic since Brown, and relaying that information to a seriously ill Steptoe shortly before his death.
"I'll never forget the look of joy in his eyes," Edwards said.
William Ledger, head of reproductive and developmental medicine at Sheffield University, called the award "an appropriate recognition" for Edwards.
"The only sadness is that Patrick Steptoe has not lived to see this day because it was always a joint team effort," Ledger said.
Other experts criticized Britain for not honoring Edwards earlier with a knighthood.
"It's a shame Britain hasn't recognized him in a more explicit fashion," said Francoise Shenfield, infertility expert with the European Society of Human Reproduction and lecturer in medical ethics at University College London.
Edwards himself told The Times of London in 2003 said he was "not terribly bothered" about not getting a knighthood.
"I'm a very left-wing socialist and I won't shed a tear. But if you can organize a Nobel, please go ahead," he joked.
Leif and Anna Karin Theelke, a Swedish couple living outside Uppsala, tried for several years to have children before turning to IVF treatment. Both their children, ages 6 and 2, were born using the procedure.
"When we were finally informed that it had worked we felt an incredible relief," Leif Theelke recalled Monday. "Without it we wouldn't have any children."
The medicine award was the first of the 2010 Nobel Prizes to be announced. It will be followed by physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and economics on Monday Oct. 11.
The prestigious awards were created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first given out in 1901. The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
Famous Nobel winners include President Barack Obama, who received last year's peace prize; Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. But most winners are relatively anonymous outside their disciplines until they suddenly are catapulted into the global spotlight by the prize announcement.
Associated Press writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Medical Writer Maria Cheng and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.