Dr. Robert Edwards put aside criticism that his research into creating embryos in a lab (in vitro fertilization, or IVF) was akin to creating Frankenstein’s monster, and perfected a procedure that has brought joy to millions of parents since 1978. Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” has proven to be a perfectly healthy human being, who has a perfectly healthy child of her own now.
Biologist Dr. Edwards and his research partner Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist and pioneer of laparoscopic surgery, were excoriated by religious leaders, government officials and other scientists, who questioned the moral, ethical and safety issues surrounding creating embryos in a lab. The two spent over 20 years attempting to perfect the procedure.
Objections have also been raised to the use of embryos created in this fashion for stem cell research because retrieving the cells involves destroying the embryos. Other concerns were that paying women for their eggs created a “market” for donor eggs and the impropriety of implanting women past childbearing age, especially after one woman gave birth to twins at age 67 and died two years later.
Since IVF is now an almost routine procedure, it’s easy to forget how radical it was once considered. In 2001, while presenting the Lasker Award to Dr. Edwards, Joseph Goldstein said, “We know that I.V.F. was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity – the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates.”
Sadly, Dr. Steptoe died in 1988 and since the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously, will never have his name on the Nobel Prize records. Even more unfortunate, according Dr. Michael Macnamee, director of the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge from which Dr. Edwards is retired, Dr. Edwards is too ill to give interviews. The 85-year-old Dr. Edwards “…was not available to reflect on his research career or the four million children alive because of his achievement. Unfortunately, he is not in a position to understand the honor he has received today. He remembers the past very well, but not the present.”
Nobel committee secretary Goran Hansson said, “I spoke to his wife, and she was delighted. And she was sure he would be delighted, too.
Why did it take so long to award this prize? Since the committee’s deliberations are confidential, it can only be speculated. Alfred Nobel’s will stipulates that the prize should be awarded for a discovery made the preceding year. But, because evaluating most scientific claims takes years, this is routinely ignored. For example, concern about the health of test-tube babies had to be proven over a period of decades. Other factors might have been that Dr. Edwards was a committed socialist, and the Nobel Committee allegedly avoids controversial people and issues.
Despite the ethical questions from some quarters, IVF led to other significant advances, such as pre-implantation diagnosis of genetic diseases and the culturing of embryonic stem cells. Today, Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby,” is 32, and gave birth to a son in 2007. Brown and her mother are “…so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves.”
While advances in modern medicine often lead to abuses, and I think implanting women over child bearing age is one of them, IVF has led to joy for millions of people and advances in genetic technology.
Sources: Yahoo news; Philly.com; NYtimes.com