Nobel Prize 2010 honors technological father of millions

Nobel Prize 2010 for medicine awarded to Robert Edwards for his work pioneering in vitro fertilization research, which has led to the births of 4 million children.

Alastair Grant / AP / File
Professor Robert Edwards, the British pioneer of IVF treatment, sits with two of his 'test tube babies,' Sophie and Jack Emery, two-year-old twins, in this file photo from July 20, 1998. They had gathered in London to celebrate the 20th birthday of Louise Brown, the world's first 'test tube baby.' On Monday, Oct. 4, the Nobel committee announced that Prof. Edwards won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine.

Science awards often go to researchers who save lives. The Nobel Assembly on Monday awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine to Robert Edwards, whose contributions to the field of in vitro fertilization (IVF) has created lives.

Dr. Edwards, now professor emeritus at Cambridge University, discovered important principles of the biology behind human reproduction, leading to the July 25, 1978, birth of the world’s first “test tube baby.”

Worldwide, Edwards’s work with in vitro fertilization has led to the birth of about 4 million babies, the Nobel Assembly said when it presented the award, which is worth 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.5 million).

Despite lingering controversy – the Catholic church still opposes it – the process is becoming increasingly popular. In the most recent 10 years for which data are available (1998-2007), IVF doubled in scale in the United States.

In 2007, more than 57,000 babies were born in the US as a result of this technology, creating a small but growing industry.

The full in vitro fertilization sequence of events – known as a cycle – begins when a woman takes hormones to increase her fertility, and ends when a fertilized embryo is implanted in her body. IVF has about a 4 in 10 success rate, so many women will go through two or more “cycles” as they try to have a child. Each cycle costs between $10,000 and $15,000, and is not typically covered by insurance.

The number of cycles in America almost doubled between 1997 and 2007. The number of babies born via IVF treatments did double.

The scale remains minute: in 2007, only 1.3 percent of babies born in America were created through this technology. But that percentage, too, continues to grow.

“That growth is probably going to remain steady,” says Eleanor Nicoll, spokeswoman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “You’ll see slight increases over time until you reach a particular percentage.”

What percentage?

Ms. Nicoll points to countries like Denmark and the United Kingdom. “IVF is more available there, because of the national health plans" and because the nations' small size means just about everyone is close enough to a clinic to undergo the treatment, she says. With that increased availability, IVF and similar technologies now contribute 2 to 5 percent of the new births in more than a dozen European nations.

The work has had a direct impact on millions of families.

“Having a baby ‘the old-fashioned way’ – that’s getting redefined,” says Ali Wicks-Lim, a mother in Amherst, Mass., who has used IVF and IUI, a related procedure. “There are a lot of different ways that families are made, and I have to honor all of them. Without this technology, I wouldn’t have my family.”

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