Nobel Prize for the development of human In Vitro Fertilization
Robert Edwards is awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for the development of human in vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy. His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than 10% of all couples worldwide.
As early as the 1950s, Edwards had the vision that IVF could be useful as a treatment for infertility. He worked systematically to realize his goal, discovered important principles for human fertilization, and succeeded in accomplishing fertilization of human egg cells in test tubes (or more precisely, cell culture dishes). His efforts were finally crowned by success on 25 July, 1978, when the world’s first “test tube baby” was born. During the following years, Edwards and his co-workers refined IVF technology and shared it with colleagues around the world.
Approximately four million individuals have so far been born following IVF. Many of them are now adult and some have already become parents. A new field of medicine has emerged, with Robert Edwards leading the process all the way from the fundamental discoveries to the current, successful IVF therapy. His contributions represent a milestone in the development of modern medicine.
Infertility – a medical and psychological problem
More than 10% of all couples worldwide are infertile. For many of them, this is a great disappointment and for some causes lifelong psychological trauma. Medicine has had limited opportunities to help these individuals in the past. Today, the situation is entirely different. In vitro fertilization (IVF) is an established therapy when sperm and egg cannot meet inside the body.
Basic research bears fruit
The British scientist Robert Edwards began his fundamental research on the biology of fertilization in the 1950s. He soon realized that fertilization outside the body could represent a possible treatment of infertility. Other scientists had shown that egg cells from rabbits could be fertilized in test tubes when sperm was added, giving rise to offspring. Edwards decided to investigate if similar methods could be used to fertilize human egg cells.
It turned out that human eggs have an entirely different life cycle than those of rabbits. In a series of experimental studies conducted together with several different co-workers, Edwards made a number of fundamental discoveries. He clarified how human eggs mature, how different hormones regulate their maturation, and at which time point the eggs are susceptible to the fertilizing sperm. He also determined the conditions under which sperm is activated and has the capacity to fertilize the egg. In 1969, his efforts met with success when, for the first time, a human egg was fertilized in a test tube.
In spite of this success, a major problem remained. The fertilized egg did not develop beyond a single cell division. Edwards suspected that eggs that had matured in the ovaries before they were removed for IVF would function better, and looked for possible ways to obtain such eggs in a safe way.
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