Making babies. Edwards's research offered new hope for infertile couples.

Bourn Hall

IVF Pioneer Wins Medicine Nobel

The father of in vitro fertilization (IVF) has won this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Robert G. Edwards, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., is the sole winner of the prize. "His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than 10% of all couples worldwide," the Nobel Committee wrote, noting that approximately 4 million children have been born following IVF.

Edwards is seriously ill and apparently was unable to take the phone call from the Nobel Committee notifying him of the prize. Göran Hansson, secretary of the 2010 Nobel Assembly, said that he had talked to Edwards's wife, who said she was very happy and was sure Edwards would be as well.

In the 1950s, inspired by work that showed that rabbit egg cells could be fertilized in the lab and give rise to offspring, Edwards worked to understand the biology of human egg cells, sperm, and embryos. His research clarified how human eggs mature, how hormones regulate their maturation, and when the eggs can be fertilized by sperm. He also figured out the conditions necessary for sperm to activate and fertilize the egg. In 1969, he and his colleagues managed to fertilize a human egg in vitro for the first time. But the resulting embryo was fragile and didn't develop.

Edwards collaborated with gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, who had developed the technique of laparoscopy to retrieve mature eggs from ovaries. The embryos that resulted from fertilizing those oocytes developed further, but the pair ran into strong opposition to their research, and in 1971, the U.K. Medical Research Council denied their request for further funding. A private donation allowed them to continue their work. Ultimately, in 1978, Louise Brown, the first "test tube baby," was born. Steptoe died in 1988; because Nobel prizes are awarded to living scientists only, he could not have been included in the prize.

Edwards was actively involved in the ethical debates from the start, as he made clear in a 1999 talk. "We were interested in the ethical situation from before we began. The first ethical papers were written by my colleagues and myself," Edwards said. "We wrote ethical papers in 1970 in Nature, and before that in other journals. … And so nobody can say that the ethicists ran the ethical debate about IVF. They didn't."

"They were definitely swimming upstream," says embryologist and stem cell researcher Roger Pedersen of the University of Cambridge. "The medical community was not receptive" of what they were trying to do, he says. "But what of course happened is that they revolutionized the treatment of infertility." The prize, he says, is a powerful acknowledgement "that fertility is a health issue."

Edwards's work also made it possible for researchers to ultimately derive human embryonic stem cells, Pedersen says: "That was part of his original vision." However, Karolinska Institute cell biologist and Nobel Assembly member Christer Höög—who also wrote a paper describing why Edwards deserved a Nobel—said in an official interview after the announcement that the prize was not intended to make a statement about stem cell research. "This award is only for the core technology" of IVF, he said.

Despite being famously tight-lipped, the Nobel organization appears to have sprung a leak this year. This morning, a story by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet tipped Edwards as the likely winner. (Apparently confident of its case, the paper also translated the story, written by medical reporter Inger Atterstam, into English.) At the press conference this morning, Hansson said he was "very shocked" by the leak. Höög said he could not say whether there will be a formal investigation.