Nobel Prize in medicine goes to British in-vitro fertilization scientist

Nobel Prize winner Robert Edwards is the British scientist who developed in-vitro fertilization, a controversial breakthrough that helped infertile couples but drew criticism from some religious groups.

Matt Dunham/AP/FILE
British Professor Robert Edwards, seen in this 2005 photo, did pioneering work leading to the birth of the world's first 'test tube baby.' Edwards was named winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine Monday.

Robert Edwards of Britain won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for developing in-vitro fertilization, a controversial breakthrough that ignited sharp criticism from religious leaders but helped millions of infertile couples in the last three decades have children.

Edwards, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, started working on IVF as early as the 1950s. He developed the technique – in which egg cells are removed from a woman, fertilized outside her body and then implanted into the womb – together with British gynecologist surgeon Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988.

On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown in Britain became the first baby born through the groundbreaking procedure.

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"(Edwards') achievements have made it possible to treat infertility..." the medicine prize committee in Stockholm said in its citation. "Approximately 4 million individuals have been born thanks to IVF," the citation said. "Today, Robert Edwards' vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world."

Steptoe and Edwards developed IVF from the early beginning experiments into a practical course of medicine and founded the first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall in Cambridge in 1980.

Prize committee secretary Goran Hansson said Edwards was not in good health Monday when the committee tried to reach him. "I spoke to his wife and she was delighted and she was sure he would be delighted too," Hansson told reporters in Stockholm after announcing the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award.

"Louise's birth signified so much," Edwards said at Brown's 25th birthday celebration in 2003. "We had to fight a lot of opposition but we had concepts that we thought would work and they worked."

Brown reportedly is a postal worker in the English coastal city of Bristol. In 2007 she gave birth to her first child – a boy named Cameron. She said the child was conceived naturally.

"Its fantastic news, me and mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations," Brown said in a statement released by Bourn Hall.

The work by Edwards and Steptoe stirred a "lively ethical debate," the Nobel citation said, with the Vatican, other religious leaders and some scientists demanding the project be stopped. When the British Medical Research Council declined funding for Steptoe and Edwards, a private donation allowed them to continue their research.

The Vatican is opposed to IVF because it involves separating conception from the "conjugal act" and often results in the destruction of human embryos that are taken from a woman but not used.

There was no immediate comment from the Vatican's top bioethics officials Monday to word of the Nobel.

The controversy over in-vitro technology has not dimmed despite its popularity. In the last few years, the increasing use of IVF has also raised discussions about what age it's appropriate to become a mother. In 2006, a 67-year-old Spanish woman became a mother after she used IVF technology to conceive twins, only to die herself two years later.

The medicine award was the first of the 2010 Nobel Prizes to be announced. It will be followed by physics on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on

Thursday, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday and economics on Monday Oct. 11.

The prestigious awards were created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, and first handed out in 1901, five years after his death.

Famous Nobel winners include President Barack Obama, who received last year's peace prize; Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill. But most winners are relatively anonymous outside their disciplines until they suddenly are catapulted into the global spotlight by the prize announcement.
Associated Press writers Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm, Medical Writer Maria Cheng and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.

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