Nobel Prize Goes to Scientist Who Developed IVF Procedure

BY Lea Winerman  October 4, 2010 at 1:42 PM EDT

Robert Edwards stands with Louise Brown, the world’s first “test tube baby,” her mother Lesley Brown and her son Cameron, in July 2008. (Photo credit: Bourn Hall Clinic)

Updated 1:58 p.m. ET

In the first of this week’s Nobel Prize announcements, British scientist Robert Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel for Medicine and Physiology Monday for his work developing the in-vitro fertilization method that led to the birth of the world’s first “test-tube baby,” Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978.

Edwards spent more than 20 years researching the fundamental biology of egg cells, sperm and embryos, and developing the technique to fertilize a human egg in the laboratory. In a statement, the Nobel prize committee wrote:

Approximately four million individuals have so far been born following IVF. Many of them are now adult and some have already become parents. A new field of medicine has emerged, with Robert Edwards leading the process all the way from the fundamental discoveries to the current, successful IVF therapy. His contributions represent a milestone in the development of modern medicine.

The Guardian has posted highlights of the announcement:

So what road led to the medicine behind the honor?

In 2006, PBS’s American Experience aired the documentary “Test Tube Babies” on the history of IVF. On the film’s web site is more background, including a biography of Edwards and a photo gallery of the stories of five early IVF families.

After more than 30 years and the births of four million babies, it’s easy to forget how controversial Edwards’ research was in its time. At the NPR Shots blog, Scott Hensley describes the difficulty Edwards and his research partner, Patrick Steptoe, faced in finding support and funding for their studies.

Edwards himself reflected on the “bumpy road” to IVF in an article in the journal Nature in 2001:

Ethicists decried us, forecasting abnormal babies, misleading the infertile and misrepresenting our work as really acquiring human embryos for research. They announced that IVF did not cure infertility, as women remained infertile after having an IVF baby.

[...] It was time to transfer embryos to their mothers. We gained ethical consent from Cambridge and Oldham to open a clinic in Newmarket Hospital, near Cambridge, with a post for Steptoe. The Medical Research Council refused to fund it; at least one member of that committee has since apologized publicly.

And in the “Motherlode” column in the New York Times, Lisa Belkin comments on the sociological implications of the research:

The breakthrough — which came after 20 years of research — not only made childbirth possible for traditional couples who otherwise could not have biological children; it also made biological parenthood possible for same-sex couples, single parents, parents worried about passing genetic conditions to their children, parents who want to guarantee a child of a certain sex and parents who are desperate to have a sibling who can donate cord blood and save the life of an existing child. It changed the expectations of women, in the sense that they could pursue careers and still have “plenty of time” to become pregnant. It created myriad possibilities for what we call a family — egg donors, womb surrogates and more.

After more than 30 years, the early IVF babies have begun to have babies of their own. Louise Brown gave birth to a son in 2006. And in August, Elizabeth Comeau, the first American IVF baby, wrote about her experiences after the birth of her son for the Boston Globe, where she works as a website producer.

We’ll have more on the story on Monday’s NewsHour. Stay tuned.