Robert Edwards Wins Nobel Prize For Medicine

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Robert G. Edwards for the development of human in-vitro fertilization therapy. His work led to the first so-called "test-tube baby" in England in 1978 and opened a new field of medicine devoted to the treatment of infertility.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has just been announced. It's going to one of the scientists who developed in-vitro fertilization. His name is Robert G. Edwards, a physiologist at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. And we're going to talk about this with NPR Science Correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Jon, good morning.

JON HAMILTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: We were just talking - normally when these Nobel Prizes are announced it's something really, really complicated, really, really obscure, really, really hard to explain how it relates to people's lives, but not today.

HAMILTON: Well, this is one that people have heard an awful lot about. You're talking about in-vitro fertilization. And it's something that's really become a part of our everyday life.

INSKEEP: So what did Robert Edwards have to do with it?

HAMILTON: Well, Robert Edwards - he was born in 1925 in the U.K. And he actually started out in the field of animal genetics. But, of course, we don't remember him for that. What we remember him for is that in about 1960 he began to focus on human fertilization. And he spent nearly a decade figuring out how to fertilize a human egg in the laboratory.

And once he'd done that, he figured out that - he was a bench scientist, so he needed to work with a physician. And he found one, a gynecologist named Patrick Steptoe.

And the two of them figured out how to - Steptoe's contribution, by the way, was that he was the one who figured out a better way of collecting eggs from women, since that's what you need to do as part of the process.

INSKEEP: He needed somebody to make this practical, basically. (Unintelligible)

HAMILTON: Exactly. You have the bench scientist working with the physician who is treating the patients.

INSKEEP: Meaning he's sitting on a bench? That's what that means basically? He's in the lab.

HAMILTON: When you hear about a test tube baby, that test tube or Petri dish is on the bench in a lab.

INSKEEP: OK. Right. Go on.

HAMILTON: Anyway, in 1978 the two of them were responsible for the birth of a baby named Louise Brown, who became the world's first test tube baby. And it's worth noting that Dr. Steptoe probably would be sharing this year's Nobel Prize, except that he died in 1988 and the prize goes to a living scientist.

INSKEEP: Now, how does IVF work and has it changed over the years?

HAMILTON: It has - there have been enhancements to it. But the basic process really is very similar. So you start out with a couple who's unable to conceive. The doctor surgically removes an egg from the woman's ovaries. That egg is placed in a culture dish. You know, that's the bench part in the lab.

And it's placed there with sperm, and with a little luck it is fertilized and begins to grow. Then the fertilized egg is placed into the woman's uterus, where, with a little more luck, it attaches and continues growing just like a typical pregnancy.

INSKEEP: Just like a typical pregnancy, but this was not something that was accepted at the beginning, as being liked or accepted as a typical pregnancy, was it?

HAMILTON: Definitely not. You know, when Louise Brown was born, you know, back in 1978, there was I think it's safe to say outrage in certain quarters. I mean there were people who simply thought that this was scientists tinkering with life in a way that as inappropriate.

The Catholic Church, you know, came out as opposed to IVF, and, in fact, still opposes all kinds of in-vitro fertilization, because it says it separates sex from the reproductive purpose.

But, you know, over time, for people without religious objections, you know, IVF has really become a part of our world.

INSKEEP: And you see evidence of that everywhere. I mean, all kinds of people across the country, if they have not had this experience, they probably know somebody who has.

HAMILTON: Well, yeah. Well, you figure that the statistics suggest that about 10 percent of about all couples are unable to conceive. So there's a huge market out there. And obviously, it's had a huge impact, especially in the developed world where people have the money and technology to go for these assisted reproductive techniques.

INSKEEP: OK. Jon, thanks very much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jon Hamilton this morning reminding us that Robert G. Edwards is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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