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Elusive Nobel prize finally lands!

11 October 2010
By Professor Martin H Johnson
Professor of Reproductive Sciences, University of Cambridge
Appeared in BioNews 579
Professor Robert Edwards was last week awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on IVF (1). Bob might seem an obvious award candidate since IVF and related treatments are taken for granted nowadays. Most of us know family, friends and/or colleagues who have used IVF, PGD, surrogacy or gamete donation.

During the lonely days of the 1960s and 1970s, the situation was very different. Simply being associated with Bob or his work was considered deeply dubious. When embryologist Professor Sir Richard Gardner and I decided in 1966 to embark on our PhD research with Bob, we were subjected to disapproving comments from other Cambridge biology academics. These were coupled with suggestions that we should choose a 'proper' research topic for our studies. This disapproval became international when, in February 1969 (2), the Nature paper describing IVF by Bob, embryologist Professor Barry Bavister and gynaecologist Mr Patrick Steptoe was published.

Then, in 1971, the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) refused to fund the development of work leading to the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown - the first IVF baby. The MRC's stated reasons? Ethical concerns (3). Bob and Patrick were upset by this decision. Bob has always given deep thought to ethical issues. He is a moral man concerned deeply with social justice. His 1971 Nature paper with US lawyer David Sharpe (4) remains today a remarkably prescient account of the risks and benefits, and the regulatory responses to manage and balance them. In ethics, as in science and medicine, Bob was 20 years ahead of his peers.

The only hostile reaction to the award has come from Vatican Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, which shows us how much the world has changed. Monsignor Carrasco seems to hold Bob personally responsible for all the perceived ills of assisted reproductive therapies. His statement appears to represent an authoritarian desire to prohibit any thought, word or deed that may challenge dogma or lead to risky discoveries. In Bob, they have the wrong target - a moral mote and beam come to mind.

Otherwise, the award has been greeted with wide international appreciation - from colleagues, patients and children. Bob and his family are delighted at this belated recognition. Why it's taken the Nobel Committee so much longer to honour his achievement than the Lasker committee, the Royal Society and many universities, societies and countries is unclear. Only the UK Government now remains tardily ungenerous in acknowledging with a high honour the achievements of this extraordinary man.

Finally, if there is sadness, it is that Mr Patrick Steptoe and Jean Purdy - Bob and Patrick's assistant - are not here to share in this celebration and prize. We think about them and their families as we celebrate with Bob and his family. Sadder yet is the prize coming so late. Bob is too frail to publically acknowledge and relish the occasion, and to receive his prize in person. But he is suffused with private happiness.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
1) Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize |  8 October 2010
2) Early Stages of Fertilization in vitro of Human Oocytes Matured in vitro
Nature |  15 February 1969
3) Why the Medical Research Council refused Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe support for research on human conception in 1971
Human Reproduction |  26 May 2010
4) Social Values and Research in Human Embryology
Nature |  14 May 1971
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