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Nobel prize in medicine goes to in vitro fertilization pioneer

Work brought hope for couples and controversy

BRITISH BIOLOGIST HONORED Some 4 million people have been born since 1978, when the first baby was born using Robert Edwards’s procedure. BRITISH BIOLOGIST HONORED
Some 4 million people have been born since 1978, when the first baby was born using Robert Edwards’s procedure.
By Karl Ritter
Associated Press / October 5, 2010

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STOCKHOLM — British biologist Robert Edwards was named the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine yesterday for developing in vitro fertilization, a breakthrough that has helped millions of infertile couples have children but also ignited an enduring controversy with religious groups.

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 British gynecologic 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.

Elizabeth Carr, America’s first test-tube baby, was born Dec. 28, 1981. She is now Elizabeth Comeau, a producer at Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s website. She gave birth to her first child in August.

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 percent of all couples worldwide,’’ the committee said in its citation. “Today, Robert Edwards’s 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 experiments into a practical course of medicine. In 1980, they founded the world’s first IVF clinic, at Bourn Hall in Cambridge, England.

Goran Hansson, prize committee secretary, said Edwards was not in good health yesterday when the committee tried to reach him. Bourn Hall Clinic 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 $1.5 million award.

The medicine award was the first of the 2010 Nobel Prizes to be announced. It will be followed by physics today, chemistry tomorrow, literature on Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, and economics on Oct. 11.

Brown, now 32, gave birth to her first child in 2007, a boy named Cameron who she said 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.’’

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.

It was not immediately clear why it took the Nobel committee so long to honor Edwards. Nobel rules were amended in 1974 to prohibit posthumous prizes, which ruled out a shared award with Steptoe. Hansson said, however, that Edwards “deserves a Nobel Prize on his own’’ because he made the fundamental discoveries that made IVF 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,’’ said Christer Hoog, prize committee member.

Aleksander Giwercman, head of reproduction research at the University of Lund in Sweden, said Edwards’s achievements also provided tools for other areas of research, including cancer and stem cells.

The controversy over in vitro fertilization has not dimmed despite its increasing popularity, and debate centers now on who should be able to use the technology. Some have questioned whether an age limit should be set on would-be parents, and whether women and men who donate their eggs and sperm should be paid.

The prestigious awards, created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, are always handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death in 1896.

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