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05 October 2010

Baby boom bags Nobel prize

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Very few scientists can say that four million people are alive because of their work, but Robert Edwards is one of those few.
His development of the technique at the heart of that claim — in vitro fertilization (IVF) — has won him this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

To make IVF possible, Edwards had to solve numerous problems in basic biology — some of which opened the door for embryonic stem-cell research — while facing bitter opposition from churches, politicians and even some of his eminent colleagues at the University of Cambridge, UK. An outgoing yet thoughtful personality who eagerly engaged in public debate, Edwards was hurt by charges that his work was unethical.

But thanks also to his collaboration with another outsider, Patrick Steptoe, an obstetrician at the Oldham and District General Hospital, the world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in 1978. Within five years, 150 test-tube babies had been born worldwide. Since then, IVF has become mainstream, and Edwards and Steptoe have been lauded for helping give life to millions. Had he not died in 1988, Steptoe would probably have shared the prize.

In 2001, Edwards won a Lasker award, which often presages the Nobel. Two years ago he celebrated the 30th anniversary of IVF at a symposium where the impact of this work on many levels of society — biology and medicine, but also law, ethics, the arts and social anthropology — was discussed. At 85, Edwards is now too frail to give interviews, but his wife told the Nobel Foundation of his happiness at receiving the prize. "No other scientist could have transformed so many aspects of our society," says Martin Johnson, one of Edwards's first graduate students and now professor of reproductive sciences at the University of Cambridge.

Edwards began his research career in the early 1950s working on the reproductive biology of mice. After harvesting eggs from female mice, he learned how to coax them, and eggs from other species, to mature and be fertilized in a test tube. He also worked out how to control the timing of the rodents' ovulation — which annoyingly tended to happen at night — by administering certain hormones.


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