The Good Wizard Wins Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine


Robert Edwards IVF -- the good wizard

Some years back my wife and I attended a conference by the Genetics and IVF Institute where we spent a thoroughly delightful evening talking with in vitro fertilization (IVF) pioneer Robert Edwards over dinner. When I introduced Pamela to Edwards, she quipped, "I hear that you're the wizard." Smiling Edwards replied, "Well, I hope that I am a good wizard." And yes, Edwards is indeed a good wizard.

It's long past time for Edwards to receive the Nobel Prize for the work he and his colleague Patrick Steptoe did in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the in vitro fertilization revolution. Sadly Steptoe died in 1988. Initially, their work was fiercely opposed by a cadre of bioluddites including former Bush bioethics advisor Leon Kass. In 1969, a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." In 1970s, the federal government imposed a moratorium on federal funding of in vitro fertilization research and legislation that would have outlawed IVF was considered by Congress. Lack of federal funding was a blessing since it meant that the field could develop unfettered by excessive federal regulation.

Louise Joy Brown -- first test tube baby

In 1978, the work of the two researchers resulted in the birth of the world's first "test-tube" baby, Louise Joy Brown. Shortly after Brown's birth, the Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans now appoved of IVF. Scientific success breeds its own support. Since that time about 4 million children have been born to infertile couples around the world. 

The Nobel Committee's press release summarizes Edwards' achievement this way:

Robert Edwards is awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for the development of human in vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy. 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.

As early as the 1950s, Edwards had the vision that IVF could be useful as a treatment for infertility. He worked systematically to realize his goal, discovered important principles for human fertilization, and succeeded in accomplishing fertilization of human egg cells in test tubes (or more precisely, cell culture dishes). His efforts were finally crowned by success on 25 July, 1978, when the world's first "test tube baby" was born. During the following years, Edwards and his co-workers refined IVF technology and shared it with colleagues around the world.

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.

Hearty congratulations to Edwards for this well-deserved recognition!