Nobel Prize for medicine awarded to Cambridge IVF pioneer

4 October 2010

The 2010 Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to Professor Robert Edwards for his work developing the technique in vitro fertilisation or IVF (see press release), which has reportedly led to the birth of around four million children conceived by this technique.

Not only has IVF made it possible for many previously childless couples to have biological children of their own, it has also allowed the subsequent development and application of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), allowing families affected by serious genetic diseases to have healthy children. The technique is also increasingly used in developed countries where the trend among women to delay childbearing into their thirties and forties means that natural fertility levels are lower and assisted conception is more likely to be needed, although the process is also less likely to be successful among older women.
 
New developments in the area include the advent of chromosomal egg screening (see previous news) and embryo screening for a range of genetic conditions (see previous news).
 
Although initially highly controversial, IVF is widely accepted in many countries today, although how far it should be publically funded as a health ‘need’ is sometimes the subject of debate.  Interestingly, many of the current ethical arguments surrounding human embryonic stem cell research centre on the creation and destruction of human embryos in vitro (i.e. in the laboratory), even for medical research or application; IVF typically involves the same process, since a number of embryos are created and a smaller number implanted; supernumerary ones are frequently destroyed or donated for stem cell research (see previous news). Whether public acceptance of stem cell therapeutics will increase over time as the benefits become more tangible and commonplace in medical practice remains to be seen.
 
Professor Edwards’ work on IVF was shared with gynaecological surgeon Dr Patrick Steptoe, but as the latter died many years ago he does not share the Nobel Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously; similarly, Dr Rosalind Franklin did not share the Nobel Prize awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA (see Wikipedia).

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