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2010 Medicine Nobel Prize Goes to the Father of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Therapy

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden decided on 4th October 2010 to award the 2010 Nobel Prize for medicine to Dr. Robert G. Edwards for his pioneering work on In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Therapy. It solved the problem of infertility faced by 10 percent couples all over the world.

This technique is now responsible for four million births and is established as a safe and effective treatment for infertility. This article tries to explore the scientific journey of Dr. Edwards, who is presently the professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge.

Beginning of the Journey: After serving his country in World War 2, Dr. Edwards pursued biology at the University of Wales in Bangor and at Edinburgh University in Scotland. He received his PhD in 1955 and joined as a staff scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London in 1958. It is here where the father of IVF therapy started his research on the human fertilization process.

Earlier studies on this subject in late 1950s had succeeded in fertilizing the eggs of rabbits by adding sperms in test tubes, leading to the birth of off-springs. Dr. Edwards wanted to extend the research on humans as well by causing fertilization of eggs outside the body. But, it was soon learnt that the life cycle of human eggs was completely different from that of rabbits.

Taste of First Success: It called for a return to the basics and Dr. Edwards started to make fundamental discoveries about the process of fertilization in order to explore the subject and gain further insight.

Some of the basic level knowledge gained were clarification of human eggs maturity, role and regulation of hormones (signalling molecules) in this process, conditions leading to activation of sperms, their capacity to fertilize eggs and most importantly at which time point are the eggs susceptible to the fertilizing sperm. The efforts culminated into the successful fertilization of a human egg in a test tube for the first time in 1969.

How the Challenges were Met: The first problem was faced when it was learnt that the fertilized egg did not undergo cell division. Dr. Edwards found a way out by considering already matured eggs in the ovaries for IVF testing. The next step was to safely get these eggs. He sought the help of Patrick Steptoe, a gynaecologist.

A pioneer in the technique of laparoscopy, Steptoe provided Dr. Edwards the much required matured eggs from the ovaries. Detection and removal of these eggs were done with an optical instrument. Dr. Edwards added sperms to these matured eggs and it resulted in the fertilized egg cells dividing at a faster rate much to the relief of these researchers.

Unfortunately, this promising research of its time had to face cash crunch for a while as the Medical Research Council decided not to fund the study further. Mixed reactions were received from the scientific community and religious institutions which felt that the study was unethical.

Dream Turning to Reality: Grants from the private sector helped the researchers soon find out the right time for fertilization of eggs and increase the chances of success. For this to happen, it was essential to study the hormonal levels of the patients. By 1978, the scientists did the first research trail on humans as the couple Lesley and John Brown became the first in IVF therapy treatment for infertility.

Mrs. Brown was returned the 8 cells embryo into her body after the fertilization of cells took place in the test tube. After a normal pregnancy period, she gave birth to a healthy baby, Louise Brown, on 25th July 1978 and a new field of medicine, reproductive biology and medicine, also took birth on the same day. Infertility no more remained a problem for the human race.

The Road Ahead: The Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge received the honour of becoming the world’s first IVF center when the duo Edwards-Steptoe decided to carry out their research there. IVF therapy refined over the years under the guidance of its pioneers in this center. Several gynaecologists and cell biologists trained from here extended the treatment to every nook and corner of the world bringing smiles to the faces of infertile couples.

Some of the Important Improvements of IVF Treatment are:

  • Single sperm these days can be directly injected into the egg cell improving the male infertility treatment.
  • Identification of mature eggs suitable for this technique is done by ultrasound technique.
  • A fine syringe ensures safe removal of these eggs from the ovaries instead of the laparoscope.
  • 20-30 percent of the fertilized eggs are sufficient for the birth of a child with very rare cases of complications.
  • Studies carried out to find out the implications of the technique in the long run have also proved it to be producing children who are as healthy as other children.

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