Nobel Prize Awarded to Developer of In Vitro Fertilization

October 04, 2010

October 4, 2010 — It is hard to deny a scientist a Nobel Prize when there are 4 million good reasons.

In the case of Robert Edwards, PhD, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology today, the reasons are roughly 4 million people born over the past 32 years due to the therapy he is being honored for — in vitro fertilization (IVF).

"The cheering in the background are the voices of 4 million babies who are thrilled to be alive," reproductive endocrinologist Alan Penzias, MD, a board member of the American Fertility Association, told Medscape Medical News.

The British-born Dr. Edwards worked with the late gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, a British pioneer in laparoscopy, to take IVF from experiment to practical medicine, the Nobel Foundation states in its announcement. On July 25, 1978, the researchers' medical technology bore human fruit when Louise Joy Brown, the daughter of Lesley and John Brown, was the first "test-tube baby" to enter the world.

Dr. Steptoe died in 1988. The Nobel Foundation does not allow individuals to be nominated for a prize posthumously. Dr. Penzias, surgical director at a group practice called Boston IVF, said that if Dr. Steptoe were alive today, he would have shared today's Nobel Prize with Dr. Edwards.

"I think that's virtually certain," he said.

Dr. Edwards left another lasting mark on reproductive medicine by founding in 1980, along with Dr. Steptoe, the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, England, the first center for IVF therapy. Gynecologists and cell biologists from around the world have trained there, according to the Nobel Foundation.

Dr. Edwards is now professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge.

Success Rate of IVF Has Greatly Improved

IVF has made tremendous strides since its inception, according to Dr. Penzias.

In the early 1990s, IVF had a success rate of 10% to 12% per monthly attempt, said Dr. Penzias. Today, the success rate approaches 50%.

When put into the context of repeated monthly attempts, IVF looks even better. "A fertile woman under age 35 having unprotected sex has an 85% chance of getting pregnant within 1 year," said Dr. Penzias. "A woman under age 35 who undergoes 6 IVF attempts has the same odds.

"Once we knew the basic formula for IVF, it set off a worldwide effort to improve the technology."

Likewise, fertility specialists have extended the scope of IVF. "The first class of women treated with IVF had missing or damaged fallopian tubes," said Dr. Penzias. "Now IVF is used for all sorts of infertility problems."


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