Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2010 to Robert G. Edwards

Let the games begin!

To kick off the week, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2010 was just awarded to British scientist, Robert G. Edwards, for the development of human in vitro fertilization. If still alive, his later collaborator, laparoscopic surgeon Patrick Steptoe, would have shared the prize. Steptoe passed away in  1988. (Let us know if you have access to Edwards’s memorial publication on Steptoe at this citation).

This is the first time the physiology or medicine prize has been given to an individual since 1999 when Günter Blobel won for work on intracellular protein trafficking.

My immediate reaction is that its one of those prizes you’d think had already been given long ago. I was a high school kid in 1978 when Louise Brown was born – named The Test-Tube Baby because Petri-Dish Baby didn’t have the same zing. She has since given birth in 2007 to her own son, Cameron, who was conceived naturally.

And what I love about this prize is that much of the earliest primary literature will require that I go to the journal stacks of the library and cannot sit here with my coffee and peruse on my computer. Edwards had worked on the fundamental biology of fertilization since the 1950s, such as in these 1954 and 1955 Nature papers, and in many cases using the natural product drug, colchicine, to delay mouse oocytes in mitosis to study chromosomal segregation.  His 1965 Lancet paper entitled, “Maturation in vitro of human ovarian oocytes,” was cited in the Nobel press release as one of the seminal papers. (Indeed, I will resist the urge – unlike some of my colleagues today – to have sport with the word, “seminal.”).

Two of the first crucial papers co-authored by Edwards and Steptoe also appeared in Nature in 1969 and 1970 so it would be lovely if some arrangements were made for cost-reasonable electronic access to these later today. Wouldn’t it be great if today Nature announced a program for iPhone app or iTunes cost access to these papers.

While I’m at it, I’d gladly pay 99 cents – or even $4.99 – for what appears to be an excellent retrospective cited by the Nobel press release is this 2001 Nature Medicine paper, “The bumpy road to human in vitro fertilization.”

Also, look today for some heavy discussion on the bioethics of IVF and the parallels to today’s stem cell research debate. The private funding of work of Edwards and Steptoe after refusal by the UK Medical Research Council in the 1970s was the subject of a Human Reproduction article just this year.

Of those today opposed to stem cell research, I’d be curious to know how many benefited from the IVF technologies of Edwards and Steptoe, or who themselves owe their own existence to IVF. Just as in the 1970s, look today for a spectrum of reactions from great reverence and gratitude for Edwards and the late Steptoe to religious condemnation of the prize. But with over 4 million people conceived with IVF, the ethical discussion will be far different from today’s theoretical discussion of the promise of – and opposition to – stem cell research.

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8 Responses to Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2010 to Robert G. Edwards

  1. Eva says:

    “Indeed, I will resist the urge – unlike some of my colleagues today – to have sport with the word, “seminal.””

    Heh. I almost described the UK as the “birthplace of IVF” by accident in a post, but then spotted the unintended cheesiness and changed the sentence. Tomorrow’s newspapers will likely have these, and MORE puns. The possibilities are endless for this one.

  2. Julie says:

    So why did they wait so long to award the prize for something that happened so long ago? (I was three and I actually do remember it). I’m curious about why.

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  4. mangrist says:

    “Wouldn’t it be great if today Nature announced a program for iPhone app or iTunes cost access to these papers.”

    Great idea!!!

  5. David Kroll says:

    I didn’t think it was such a bad idea, really.

    But, alas, it did not happen.

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  7. Gaythia says:

    While celebrating the accomplishments of Robert G. Edwards, for the development of human in vitro fertilization, along with Patrick Steptoe, and others; I think we need to be mindful of efforts to deprive future families of the opportunity to access IVF technologies.

    Here in Colorado, we again face a ballot measure this fall to amend the state constitution to grant legal rights, “Personhood”, to fertilized eggs:

  8. Frank Norman says:

    You are correct to say that MRC rejected a funding bid from Edwards, but it did support his early research for five years when he was at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research. See

    (By the way, the 40th anniversary programme that is linked to there does include that Nature Medicine article).

    @Julie – the Nobel website mentions the reason:

    Christer Höög explained that recent follow up studies showing that IVF children are as healthy as normally conceived children, were a contributing factor for awarding Robert G. Edwards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010 and not earlier.