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Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Awards: Robert Edwards gets nod for developing in vitro fertilization

by Sarah Everts
October 11, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 41

Credit: Bourn Hall Clinic
Credit: Bourn Hall Clinic

The development of in vitro fertilization (IVF), an infertility treatment in which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the human body and later implanted into a woman’s uterus so she becomes pregnant, has garnered Robert G. Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The honor comes with $1.5 million in prize money.

Edwards’ “achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10% of all couples worldwide,” the Nobel Prize announcement says. Edwards, 85, is also a founder of the Bourn Hall Clinic, a center for IVF treatment in Cambridge, England.

At a press conference in Sweden, Göran K. Hansson, secretary of the Nobel Prize committee, said Edwards is in poor health, so news of his award was communicated by telephone to his wife, “who said she was delighted and was sure he would also be delighted.”

On July 25, 1978, the first baby was born through IVF treatment. This year, approximately 4 million babies will be born from the procedure.

“Every clinician in the field of reproductive medicine worldwide will celebrate,” says Enda McVeigh, the medical director of Oxford University Fertility Unit. “IVF changed millions of people’s lives and continues to give hope to so many couples. IVF has also opened doors in new areas: preimplantation genetic diagnosis and stem cells, to name but two.”

The pursuit of IVF “was not easy for Edwards,” McVeigh adds. “At the start of his research, he was not supported by the ‘establishment’ in the U.K.” For example, the U.K.’s Medical Research Council discontinued funding of his research. Some ethicists, certain religious groups, and parts of the media lobbied against his research.

“I had to issue eight libel actions in the High Court of London on a single day,” wrote Edwards in a 2001 article in Nature Medicine (7, 1091). “I won them all, but the work and worry restricted research for several years.”



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