Test-tube baby pioneer honoured

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.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — 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.

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 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 per cent 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.

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 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 honour 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 centres 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 honouring 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.

———

Online

www.nobelprize.org

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

AstraZeneca vaccine is ready to be used at a homeless shelter in Romford, east London, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Frank Augstein
AstraZeneca-linked blood clot confirmed in Alberta

A case of an AstraZeneca-linked blood clot has been confirmed in Alberta,… Continue reading

The Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools Board of Trustees selected the name St. Lorenzo Ruiz Middle School to be built in the north end of Red Deer. (Photo Courtesy of  Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools)
Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools raises about $8,720 for Terry Fox Foundation

Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools raised about $8,720 for the Terry Fox… Continue reading

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Health Canada has reversed course on home test kits for COVID-19, saying it will now review applications for such devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Alberta declines Ontario’s request to send health-care workers

Alberta is “not in a position” to send health-care workers out of… Continue reading

The Red Deer Rebels allowed four straight goals from the Medicine Hat Tigers Friday night on the road. (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers hand Red Deer Rebels 10th straight loss

Tigers 4 Rebels 2 Through 17 games in the shortened WHL season,… Continue reading

Meghan Huizing has been selected by Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools as a finalist for the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) 2021 Edwin Parr Award. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Regional Catholic Schools)
Red Deer Catholic names finalist for Edwin Parr Award

Meghan Huizing from St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Blackfalds has… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools will not pilot the new draft curriculum at its elementary schools. (File photo contributed by Red Deer Public Schools)
UPDATED: Red Deer Public Schools says no to piloting new curriculum

Alberta Teachers’ Association support school boards

Brad Dahr, 53, is facing numerous charges. (Photo contributed by Alberta RCMP)
Alberta man charged for alleged sexual offences against children

An Edmonton man has been charged for alleged sexual offences against children… Continue reading

A person walks past a COVID-19 mural designed by artist Emily May Rose on a rainy day during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, April 12, 2021. Employment lawyers say flouting COVID-19 public health orders when off the job or coming into work while knowingly sick could warrant discipline in the workplace. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Risky pandemic behaviour off the clock could mean workplace discipline: lawyers

CALGARY — Employment lawyers say flouting COVID-19 public health orders when off… Continue reading

Vials containing Russia's Sputnik V vaccine for COVID-19 are seen at the San Marino State Hospital, in San Marino, Friday, April 9, 2021.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Antonio Calanni
China, Russia using their COVID-19 vaccines to gain political influence

OTTAWA — China and Russia have been using their locally produced COVID-19… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Tuesday, March 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau announces donation to Duke of Edinburgh’s award ahead of funeral

Canada will donate $200,000 to the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award as… Continue reading

Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (Science) Will Amos responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. The Liberal MP who inadvertently flashed his parliamentary colleagues says the fact that a screenshot of him in the nude was leaked to the media sends a troubling message about the corrosive state of politics in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
Canada’s naked MP speaks out: leaked photo sends message ‘anything goes’ in politics

OTTAWA — The Liberal MP who inadvertently flashed his parliamentary colleagues says… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday night’s $10 million Lotto Max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the $10 million jackpot… Continue reading

Opinion
Opinion: Canada’s self-esteem needs Trump

Well, it was fun while it lasted. For four years, with Donald… Continue reading

Harley Hay
Harley Hay: Shenanigans on the links

It must be something about my Scottish heritage but I seem to… Continue reading

Most Read