A Nobel cause?

By John Engle

The winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine was announced at the beginning of this month, Dr Robert G. Edwards, “for the development of in vitro fertilisation.” Edwards joins an elite group of men and women who have distinguished themselves through discovery in the fields of physiology or medicine. Since the Prize’s inception in 1901, it has been awarded 100 times to 195 individuals.

Edwards’ achievement has had great and lasting effects on the world of science and medicine, and has served to revolutionise the fields of fertility and embryonic development. His recognition for his great contribution to medicine is richly deserved.

Human in vitro fertilisation, or IVF as it is often called, is a process by which human egg cells taken from a woman are fertilised externally by sperm cells, in a test tube. The sperm and egg interact in a controlled fluid medium. Once fertilisation is complete, the zygote, or fertilised egg, is transferred to the patient’s uterus. If the process works, a successful pregnancy will develop.

Edwards’ work on in vitro fertilisation began in 1960, while working at the University of Cambridge. He first succeeded in 1968 to achieve fertilisation of a human embryo in laboratory settings, a crucial step in the process. In collaboration with Dr Patrick Steptoe, Edwards was able to develop a method of successful external fertilisation and implantation. The first human product of Edwards and Steptoe’s new method, Louise Brown, was born in 1978. She was heralded as the first “test-tube baby.”

Edwards’ work has become a major tool in the arsenal of fertility specialists, and has come to serve as the last resort when other forms of assisted reproductive technology have failed. According to the Nobel Committee, over four million births have been the direct product of Edwards’ discovery. Less directly, Edwards’ research laid the groundwork for much of today’s embryonic development and stem cell studies.

The great success of Edwards’ work was not universally well received at the time of its development, and was the target of a great deal of political attack. The British government had refused funding to the project initially, and Edwards was criticised for trying to play God. Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, spoke out against in vitro fertilisation. The controversy has not entirely dissipated, nor have all people’s fears been assuaged over time, as has been made clear in the wake of the announcement of Edwards’ winning of the Nobel Prize.

Since the announcement, religious groups have once again found reason to speak out against the process and Edwards’ work. On 4 October the Vatican condemned the Edwards’ award as “completely out of order.” Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the Vatican’s bioethics spokesman, cited as the reason for its objection the destruction of many excess embryos during the in vitro fertilisation process.

However, while some naysayers may yet remain, the process of in vitro fertilisation has changed millions of lives, and allowed countless people become parents. It seems unquestionable that Robert Edwards’ contributions to medicine, and to society, is receiving just recognition.