- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Robert Edwards of Britain won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for developing in-vitro fertilization, a controversial breakthrough that ignited sharp criticism from religious leaders but helped millions of infertile couples in the last three decades have children.

Mr. Edwards, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, started working on IVF as early as the 1950s. He developed the technique — in which egg cells are removed from a woman, fertilized outside her body and then implanted into the womb — together with British gynecologist-surgeon Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988.

On July 25, 1978, Louise Brown in Britain became the first baby born through the groundbreaking procedure, marking a revolution in fertility treatment.

“[Mr. Edwards‘] achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10 percent of all couples worldwide,” the medicine prize committee in Stockholm said in its citation.

“Approximately 4 million individuals have been born thanks to IVF,” the citation said. “Today, Robert Edwards‘ vision is a reality and brings joy to infertile people all over the world.”

Dr. Steptoe and Mr. Edwards developed IVF from the early beginning experiments into a practical course of medicine and founded the first IVF clinic at Bourn Hall in Cambridge in 1980.

Today, the probability that an infertile couple will take home a baby after a cycle of IVF is 1 in 5, about the same odds that healthy couples have of conceiving naturally.

Prize committee secretary Goran Hansson said Mr. Edwards was not in good health Monday when the committee tried to reach him. Bourn Hall said Mr. Edwards was too ill to give interviews.

“I spoke to his wife and she was delighted and she was sure he would be delighted too,” Mr. Hansson told reporters in Stockholm after announcing the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award.

Louise’s birth signified so much,” Mr. Edwards said at Ms. Brown’s 25th birthday celebration in 2003. “We had to fight a lot of opposition, but we had concepts that we thought would work, and they worked.”

Ms. Brown, now 32, reportedly is a postal worker in the English coastal city of Bristol. In 2007 she gave birth to her first child — a boy named Cameron. She said the child was conceived naturally.

“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,” Ms. Brown said in a statement released by Bourn Hall.

The work by Mr. Edwards and Dr. Steptoe stirred a “lively ethical debate,” the Nobel citation said, with the Vatican, other religious leaders and some scientists demanding the project be stopped. When the British Medical Research Council declined funding for Dr. Steptoe and Mr. Edwards, a private donation allowed them to continue their research.

The Vatican is opposed to IVF because it involves separating conception from the “conjugal act” — sexual intercourse between a husband and wife — and often results in the destruction of human embryos that are taken from a woman but not used.

In a statement, Bourn Hall said one of Mr. Edwards‘ proudest moments was discovering that 1,000 IVF babies had been born at the clinic since Ms. Brown, and relaying that information to a seriously ill Dr. Steptoe shortly before his death in 1988.

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