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Professor Robert Edwards awarded Nobel Prize

Professor Robert Edwards awarded Nobel Prize

By Rachel Holdsworth - 22 August 2009

Professor Robert Edwards – known affectionately as the father of IVF - has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2010. His pioneering work with Patrick Steptoe led to the birth of the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby, Louise Brown, on 25 July 1978.

Steptoe and Edwards founded the world’s first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall Cambridge in 1980. Over 10,000 babies have been born following treatment at the clinic. Chief Executive, Mike Macnamee says of Professor Edwards,

“Bob Edwards is one of our greatest scientists. His inspirational work in the early 60s led to a breakthrough that has enhanced the lives of millions of people worldwide. He is held in great affection by everyone that has worked with him and was treated by him. I am really pleased that my great mentor, colleague and friend has been recognised in this way.”

Professor Edwards and his family were delighted to hear the news. His wife Ruth says on behalf of the family,

“The family are thrilled and delighted that Professor Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine for the development of IVF.

“The success of this research has touched the lives of millions of people worldwide. His dedication and single minded determination despite opposition from many quarters has led to successful application of his pioneering research.”

It was following a chance meeting in 1968 between the gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, Research Fellow at the Department of Physiology, University of Cambridge, which led to a collaboration that would change the lives of millions of people. 

Although Edwards had created the first blastocyst in 1968 and the first successful human test-tube fertilisation took place by 1970, it took a further eight years of work by the two men until a breakthrough resulted in a healthy pregnancy and the birth of the first ever 'test-tube baby', Louise Brown, in July 1978. 

Louise and her mother Lesley Brown are delighted by the news that Professor Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his work.

On hearing the news of his award, Louise said,

“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 to him and his family at this time.”

Steptoe and Edwards founded the world’s first IVF clinic at Bourn in Cambridge, UK. With a team of research scientists and doctors they developed the treatment and associated procedures that are now used at clinics worldwide. Many of which have been established by embryologists and doctors that were trained at Bourn Hall.

Dr Thomas Mathews, Bourn Hall Clinic’s Medical Director, says,

“I remember first being introduced to Bob in 1983 when I came for an interview at Bourn Hall and being immediately impressed with his passion and enthusiasm for IVF. I also remember his insistence that every member of the team had to maintain his high standards in our clinical and scientific work.

“Even in those early days he was thinking ahead of his time, talking about freezing embryos, blastocyst culture, pre genetic diagnosis (PGD) and ICSI (intra cytoplasmic sperm injection) long before people had thought these scientific techniques could be a reality.

"As a person he always found time to talk to the patients about what was happening in the laboratory and rejoiced when each IVF baby was born. He took great personal pleasure in the news of each birth.”

Professor Edwards became famous worldwide for his work with Patrick Steptoe and his main motivation was his strong desire to help infertile couples conceive.

“Steptoe and I were deeply affected by the desperation felt by couples who so wanted to have children. The most important thing in life is having a child,” he said. “Nothing is more special than a child.”

One of Edwards’ proudest moments was discovering that 1,000 IVF babies had been born at Bourn Hall since Louise Brown. He distinctly remembers the thrill of relaying this to a seriously ill Steptoe, shortly before Steptoe’s death in 1988.

“I’ll never forget the look of joy in his eyes,” said Edwards.

Today, Edwards never fails to be impressed by the new techniques which have developed from his and Steptoe’s groundbreaking work. Techniques perfected at Bourn Hall such as ICSI and blastocyst culture, along with developments in gamete freezing, have significantly increased success rates.

Martin Johnson, Professor of Reproductive Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Editor of RBMOnline, was one of Bob’s first research students. He says,

“I'm naturally delighted that Bob Edwards has been awarded the Nobel Prize, following on from the Lasker Prize that he won about ten years ago; this enables Bob to achieve his proper recognition. It is truly wonderful that such an engaging, warm and generous person, as well as a visionary in science, can be acknowledged in this way for all his many achievements.

“He was a man much ahead of his time not just in IVF, but in preimplantation genetic diagnosis, the derivation of embryonic stem cells, and also for his publications and lectures on ethics in science and the role of regulation, where again he was way ahead of others. His achievements are not just over 4 million babies worldwide born through assisted reproductive technology, but also the way that he transformed the whole approach to research and care in reproductive medicine and gynaecology. It is very sad that his colleagues Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy aren't alive to share this prize with him."

The medicine award was the first of the 2010 Nobel Prizes to be announced. The prestigious awards were created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, and first handed out in 1901, five years after his death. Each award includes 10 million Swedish kronor (about £1 million), a diploma and a gold medal.

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