IVF Pioneer Robert Edwards Wins Nobel Prize

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AP Photo/Alastair Grant, File

Thirty two years after the first test tube baby was born, the biologist who was the first to successfully mix egg and sperm in a lab dish and generate a healthy human baby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Robert Edwards, 85, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge in England, was honored for developing in vitro fertilization (IVF), a technique that now accounts for 1-2% of all births and has helped more than four million babies come into the world. (More on Time.com: Building a Brighter Kid: Consider IVF)

Working for years with rabbits and then mice, often making trips to the lab in the middle of the night to collect eggs from the ovulating animals, he pioneered a process in which he could artificially prompt the ovary to release several eggs at a time, and then conducted experiment after experiment with human eggs to correctly time their removal with fertilization by fresh sperm to generate an embryo. He partnered with Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist, for the latter studies and eventually hit upon the right process of hormones and culture conditions to not only obtain eggs but fertilize them and keep the resulting embryos alive in a dish before they could be transplanted into a woman’s womb.

The work was hardly welcomed ethically, as critics felt that moving the first steps toward life out of the body and into the laboratory crossed a moral line. The government’s Medical Research Council, which had initially supported Edwards’ work, terminated its support and he was forced to find private funding to continue the project. (More on Time.com: PHOTOS: Meet the Babies of Babies).

Despite the challenges, on July 25, 1978, Louise Brown became the first baby born from this process. “His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity including more than 10% of all couples worldwide,” noted the Nobel committee in its award. “His contributions represent a milestone in the development of modern medicine.”

While initially doctors were concerned about potential health problems among IVF babies, the Prize committee noted that to date, babies born from IVF appear as healthy as those conceived naturally. (More on Time.com: VIDEO: How the Cord Blood Collection Kit Works).

Edwards, who is in poor health, was informed of the citation by his wife, who answered the call from the Nobel committee and was “delighted” by the honor.

More on Time.com:

Study: IVF Causes Higher Rates of Baby Boys

A New Artificial Ovary May Someday Boost Women’s Success with In Vitro

5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked)