Medical Nobel goes to developer of IVF

Robert Edwards receives prize for work that led to 4 million births

The 2010 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine goes to British researcher Robert Edwards for pioneering in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a process that has led to roughly 4 million births since it was first successfully done in 1978.

Robert Edwards pioneered in vitro fertilization, a method that produced its first live birth in 1978. Copyright Bourn Hall

Human IVF treats infertility caused when sperm and egg fail to meet within a prospective mother. A woman undergoing IVF is stimulated with hormones to produce eggs, and multiple eggs are removed from her ovaries and fertilized with sperm from a donor. Healthy fertilized eggs, or embryos, are then transferred back into the woman’s uterus. When successful, a pregnancy ensues.

Edwards began research on IVF in the 1950s and later worked with gynecologist Patrick Steptoe in refining the process of egg removal, fertilization and reimplantation. Early work had shown this could be done in rabbits. In the late 1960s Edwards was the first to try human egg removal and fertilization in vitro, a Latin term meaning “in glass.” Ultimately, this gave rise to a now outdated term, test-tube babies.

Edwards, based at the University of Cambridge, teamed with Steptoe to develop the technology needed to take the idea of IVF from a laboratory idea to medical practice. They conducted research at Cambridge and at hospitals in Oldham, England, where Steptoe worked. Edwards also collaborated with scientists internationally. But a decade would pass before an IVF procedure resulted in a baby being born. That came in 1978, following a full-term pregnancy, in Oldham. Edwards and Steptoe subsequently founded an IVF research center in Cambridge.

Steptoe died in 1988. The Nobel committee doesn’t award prizes posthumously. In granting Edwards the prize, the committee cited IVF as a “milestone” in medical care. “By a brilliant combination of basic and applied medical research, Edwards overcame one technical hurdle after another in his persistence to discover a method that would help to alleviate infertility,” the committee stated.

IVF complications are very rare, but the procedure succeeds in only 25 to 30 percent of attempts, causing emotional and financial hardship for many couples. A new algorithm may take some of the guesswork out of IVF for couples who have failed in their first attempt (SN: 8/14/10, p. 8).

Edwards previously won the Lasker award for his work. He has been “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 and the role of regulation­,” says Martin Johnson, a reproductive sciences expert at the University of Cambridge.

The prize is worth about $1.5 million.

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