British scientist Prof Robert Edwards who pioneered IVF treatment has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his achievements in the treatment of infertility.
Former Cambridge physiologist Prof Robert Edwards, now 85, developed the fertility treatment that led to the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown in 1978.
Together with his colleague Dr Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologic surgeon, they created the technique of fertilising human eggs outside the body before implanting in the womb. Dr Steptoe died in 1988.
As well as leading to a host of new treatments for infertility, the work also founded the principles behind stem cell research, cloning and techniques that would allow couples to prevent passing on inheritable diseases to their children.
Christer Höög, professor of molecular biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and a member of the Nobel Prize Committee, said the birth represented a “paradigm shift”
“It showed for the first time that it is possible to treat infertility,” he said.
Prof Edwards’ work was highly controversial at the time and there was strong opposition to what was seen as ‘playing God’ and the research had to be privately funded.
However IVF has now become routine around the world with more than four million babies worldwide using the technique and developments from it.
Louise Brown and others born as a result of the technique have had children of their own conceived naturally.
Louise, who had a son in 2007, said: “Its 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 to him and his family at this time.”
Mike Macnamee, chief executive of Bourn Hall, near Cambridge, the IVF clinic which Edwards and Steptoe founded, said: “Bob Edwards is one of our greatest scientists. His inspirational work in the early ’60s led to a breakthrough that has enhanced the lives of millions of people worldwide.
“Bob Edwards is held in great affection by everyone that has worked with him and was treated by him. I am really pleased that my great mentor, colleague and friend has been recognised in this way.”
Prof Edwards, who is understood to be too ill to speak about the Nobel Prize has in the past said: “The most important thing in life is having a child. Nothing is more special than a child.”
One of his proudest moments was discovering that 1,000 IVF babies had been born at Bourn Hall since Louise Brown.
He has recalled the thrill of relaying this to a seriously ill Dr Steptoe, shortly before Dr Steptoe’s death. “I’ll never forget the look of joy in his eyes,” Prof Edwards has said.
Martin Johnson, Professor of Reproductive Sciences at the University of Cambridge, said: “I am absolutely delighted. This is long overdue.
“Bob’s work has always been controversial but he has never shrunk from confronting that controversy.
“He was a real visionary, and always ahead of his time on so many issues – not just IVF – also on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis in the 60s, stem cells in the 70s, and the whole process of thinking ethically.
“He is also an amazing human being – warm and generous. He was shocked when the MRC accused him of behaving unethically because everything he has done was based on a very clear set of humanist and ethical principles. It has taken 20 or 30 years for some people to catch up with him.”
Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at University of Sheffield: “I am absolutely delighted and overwhelmed to hear this news and it is long overdue.
“Bob was a visionary and worked hard to develop IVF in a time when so many were against him.
“It is a tribute to his tenacity that he persevered in his research and as a consequence has changed the lives of millions across the world. My only sadness is that Bob’s failing health may mean that he is less able to enjoy this award than he once was. This is a great day for him.”
Prof Edwards has been studying animal and human reproduction since the 1950s when he teamed up with Dr Patrick Steptoe at his clinic in Oldham in 1968.
Together they were the first to successfully fertilise a human egg outside the body.
Their basic science led to many discoveries about human reproduction including how eggs mature, how their growth is regulated by different hormones and when in their development they can be fertilised with sperm.
However, it would take almost another decade before they were ready to attempt to implant a fertilised egg in a woman.
They encountered problems in encouraging the fertilised egg to begin to divide – a process vital for human life to begin and the egg to become an embryo.
Prof Edwards suspected that the eggs needed to be mature before they were fertilised and that this process occurred in the ovaries.
Eventually they were able to harvest human eggs and sperm at the right times, keep them alive outside the body in a dish and mix them together so that the sperm fertilised an egg. The resulting fertilised egg then began to divide and was implanted in the womb.
The first attempts to implant the resulting embryos in a woman were made in 1972 but there were repeated failures.
In 1978 they were successful and Louise Brown was born on July 25th. She was dubbed the first ‘test-tube’ baby although the process actually occurs in a dish.
Prof Edwards became affectionately known as the ‘father of IVF’ and went on to further develop and share the technique.
The pair founded the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge two years after Louise Brown was born and began treating infertile couples.
The basic IVF technique has led to a host of new treatments for infertility and has allowed fertile couples carrying inheritable diseases to avoid passing them on to their children.
Prof Edwards work also led to discoveries about stem cells and cloning.