06 October 2010

IVF pioneer celebrates Nobel Prize

British scientist Robert Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on developing IVF.


British scientist Robert Edwards believes that the most valuable thing in life is children - and spent his career making the dream of having a baby come true for millions of people worldwide.

This week he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, for his work on developing in vitro fertilisation (IVF), the science behind what became known as "test tube babies".

Where it all began

Edwards, now a frail 85, finally saw his work recognised by the Nobel committee five decades after he began experimenting and started on a path that would take him into conflict with the Catholic Church and fellow scientists.

He soon grasped that fertilisation outside the body could be a new way of treating infertility. Building on earlier research which showed that egg cells from rabbits could be fertilised in test tubes when sperm was added, Edwards developed the same technique for humans.

In a laboratory in Cambridge, eastern England, in 1968, he first saw life created outside the womb in the form of a human blastocyst, an embryo that has developed for five to six days after fertilisation.

"I'll never forget the day I looked down the microscope and saw something funny in the cultures," Edwards has recalled. "I looked down the microscope and what I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me. I thought: 'We've done it."

Not all plain sailing

But Edwards and his fellow researcher, gynaecological surgeon Patrick Steptoe, were forced to defend their work in the face of severe opposition, from the media, the Catholic Church - and fellow scientists. At a conference on biomedical ethics in Washington in 1971, the Nobel laureate James Watson, who with Francis Crick had discovered DNA, said IVF research would necessitate infanticide.

Addressing the conference, Edwards defended his work with the passion and energy that characterised all his work, and received a standing ovation. He remains convinced that the Catholic Church is wrong to object to IVF, saying clergy who condemn the technique are "totally mistaken".

"Catholics are told not to do it and yet Catholics go and do it. All the popes have done for themselves is teach their people to disobey them," he has said.

His work was motivated by his belief that: "The most important thing in life is having a child. Nothing is more special than a child."

Edwards himself, who was born on September 27, 1925, has five daughters with his wife Ruth, and 11 grandchildren.

The first IVF baby

The culmination of his painstaking research came in 1978, with the birth of the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown.

Such was the controversy at the time that Louise's mother had to give birth in secret to avoid the media, said Kay Elder, a research scientist who later joined Edwards' team.

"It was so scary," Elder said, recalling that the interest surrounding the birth was so intense because the media "thought it was going to be something horrible, because we didn't have the sophisticated monitoring tools that we have now."

She added: "Just tampering with human life was thought to be unethical and undesirable."

Two years ago, Edwards spoke of his pride in his achievement as he celebrated Brown's 30th birthday.

"I think the whole thing is incredible," he said then, speaking fondly of Louise's mother Lesley and now dead father John. "When I go round the world I say this family were ordinary people... they were not brilliant people like Nobel Prize winners or anything. They were just ordinary."

Brown thrilled at award for Edwards

Meanwhile Brown said she was "delighted" that Robert Edwards, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. In a joint statement with her mother Lesley, she said: "It's fantastic news. Me and mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF (in vitro fertilisation) has been given the recognition he deserves.

"We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."

Louise's birth in 1978 was the first to stem from the groundbreaking work of Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologic surgeon.

She is now a mother herself, having given birth by natural means.

"The success of this research has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide," she said. "His dedication and single-minded determination despite opposition from many quarters has led to successful application of his pioneering research."

The Bourn Hall Clinic, the fertility centre which Edwards founded with Steptoe in Cambridge, has overseen the birth of more than 10,000 test tube babies and nearly four million children have been born by IVF worldwide. - (Sapa, October 2010)

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