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 a test tube 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.