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Nobel Prize For Medicine Goes To IVF Pioneer


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


I'm Robert Siegel. And welcome, Mary Louise, for joining us the next couple of weeks.

KELLY: Thank you. My great pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Good to see you here.

It's been 30 years since Louise Joy Brown became the first test-tube baby. And today, one of the scientists who made Brown's existence possible won a Nobel Prize.

KELLY: That's Robert Edwards. He's a�physiologist at Cambridge University, and he received the prize in physiology and medicine for his work on in-vitro fertilization.

As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, IVF caused a huge controversy at first, but has since produced more than four million babies.

JON HAMILTON: Louise Brown was conceived in a dish using an egg from her mother and sperm from her father. The fertilized egg was placed in her mother's uterus and Louise arrived by c-section in 1978 with a film crew in attendance.

Patrick Steptoe, the gynecologist who was Robert Edwards' main collaborator described her birth.

Dr. PATRICK STEPTOE (Gynecologist): We don't want her first breath to inhale any of this fluid.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

A good healthy cry.

HAMILTON: That cry was a scientific milestone - a baby born to a couple who would otherwise have been unable to have a child. And it was a cry that would echo around the world as people debated whether scientists were tinkering inappropriately with life itself.

Edwards and Steptoe knew their work would be disturbing to many people. Steptoe died in 1988, and Edwards, who is 85, isn't granting interviews anymore. But in 2001, after he won the Lascar Award, Edwards said he and Steptoe had decided not to let public opinion slow them down.

Dr. ROBERT EDWARDS (Physiologist, Cambridge University): We agreed before we touched a patient that we would stop if we thought any damage were being done to the mother, the father or the child, but would not accept religious objections that weren't defined or political objections that weren't defined or personal insults, which we got in plenty.

HAMILTON: The Catholic Church objected, saying science shouldn't separate sex from procreation. Some scientists worried that IVF babies would be abnormal or unhealthy. But that didn't happen.

Alan Penzias of Harvard Medical School and Boston IVF says these days IVF has wide support.

Dr. ALAN PENZIAS (Boston IVF): The voices that you hear, all the cheering in the background, not only are the four million babies born due to IVF and their eight million parents, but every reproductive medicine specialist who can sit across the desk, look at a patient in the eye and said, congratulations, you're pregnant today because of IVF.

HAMILTON: IVF now accounts for more than one percent of babies born in the U.S. and many other nations. And Penzias says the work of Edwards and Steptoe is why we're grappling with another promising but controversial technology.

Dr. PENZIAS: The understanding of how eggs and embryos grow in the dish also led to the stem cell lines that exist today.

HAMILTON: And IVF has led to a whole new set of treatments for infertility. Roger Lobo at Columbia University is president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. He says those new treatments include...

Dr. ROGER LOBO (American Society for Reproductive Medicine): The injection of sperm into the egg, which is called ICSI, which allows male infertility to be treated; genetic diagnosis, what we call PGD.

HAMILTON: And freezing embryos for later use. Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein recently published a history of childbirth called "Get Me Out." She says society's gradual acceptance of IVF has been pretty typical for a new reproductive technology, whether it's the tools used to deliver babies, hormone treatments or choosing one embryo over another.

Dr. RANDI HUTTER EPSTEIN (Author, "Get Me Out"): Everything we do is considered horrible and weird and scary. And then when it works, because so many couples are desperate to have a baby, we just go with it.

HAMILTON: And Hutter-Epstein says that won't stop with new ways to get pregnant.

Dr. EPSTEIN: We think, oh, it's terrible that we're going to pick a child because it's a boy or it has blue eyes. And if we can figure out how to do it, sure. I think we're going to go with whatever technology is available.

HAMILTON: Hutter-Epstein says the one limiting factor is cost. And she says for IVF that's typically tens of thousands of dollars.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.