A British biologist won a Nobel Prize on Monday for his work developing the controversial techniques that led to the world’s first test-tube baby and has since enabled infertile couples to have more than 4 million babies.
Robert G. Edwards and his colleague Patrick Steptoe electrified the world with their work, which led to the birth of Louise Brown on July 25, 1978. The process was at first condemned by many who saw it as scientists playing God and the first step toward a brave new world of tailor-made children.
Although the procedure, known as in-vitro fertilization or IVF, remains controversial and is opposed by the Catholic Church and others, it has become widely accepted and practiced.
“His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition affecting a large proportion of humanity,” the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said in announcing the $1.5 million prize. “Today, IVF is an established therapy throughout the world.”
Edwards began his work in the 1950s to develop a way to remove an egg from a woman’s ovaries, fertilize it with a man’s sperm in the laboratory and place the fertilized egg back into the woman’s womb to develop naturally. It is used to treat a host of fertility problems, including cases in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are blocked, preventing the egg from being fertilized normally.
Steptoe, a gynecologist, typically would have shared the prize, but he died in 1988, and the prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.
Edwards, now 85 and a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, was not in good health when the Nobel committee tried to reach him. Bourn Hall, the clinic he founded in Cambridge, said Edwards was too ill to give interviews.
In a statement released by Bourn Hall, Edwards’ wife, Ruth, said: “The family are thrilled and delighted that Professor Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for the development of IVF,” she said, citing her husband’s dedication and determination. “The success of this research has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide. … Despite opposition from many quarters this has led to successful application of his pioneering research.”
Brown, now 32, gave birth to her first child in 2007 – a boy named Cameron. She said the child was conceived naturally.
“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 said in a statement released by Bourn Hall.
IVF is used widely around the world. More than 10 percent of couples worldwide are infertile.