Robert Geoffrey Edwards, who developed in vitro fertilization (IVF) in humans, will receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
The initially controversial technology has since produced more than 4 million babies worldwide to otherwise infertile parents.
When Edwards, now professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, started his research on infertility in the 1950s, scientists had already successfully fertilized eggs from rabbits in test tubes and produced young. It didn’t take much time for Edwards to realize that fertilization outside of the uterus could be a viable option for human couples who were having issues conceiving.
While on the road to developing IVF, Edwards made myriad discoveries that have contributed to researchers’ understanding of the maturation of the human egg cell. For example, he deciphered how different hormones control the development of the egg, as well as when the egg is most receptive to fertilization. Finally, in 1969, all the hard work paid off when Edwards, for the first time in history, fertilized a human egg cell in a test tube.
But the road to successfully producing a live, healthy baby in vitro was unpaved and rocky. Initially, the fertilized egg couldn’t make it past single cell division. One possible flaw, Edwards guessed, was that the eggs needed to mature inside the ovaries and then subsequently be removed for IVF. Safe ways to accomplish this task, however, remained unknown at the time.
With the help of Patrick Steptoe, once a gynecologist and medical researcher at Royal Oldham Hospital in the UK (now deceased), Edwards was able to fertilize eggs that developed into early embryos. Shortly after this advancement, however, the Medical Research Council cut funding on the project, citing ethical concerns about the technique. The MRC wasn’t alone–Edwards received a great deal of criticism concerning the ethics behind his research from religious leaders and scientists alike. However, a private donation kept his research afloat.
On July 25th 1978, years of research paid off when Louise Brown, daughter of Leslie and John Brown, was delivered by Caesarian section after a normal nine-month pregnancy.
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