For the development of in vitro fertilization, a technological advance that has revolutionized the treatment of human infertility.
This year’s Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award honors the scientist who developed in vitro fertilization (IVF), a technology that has revolutionized the treatment of infertility. When Robert Edwards began his work in 1955, physicians could do little more for their infertile patients than squeeze a shoulder and cast a sympathetic look. Edwards pioneered a field that has touched millions of lives, as infertility afflicts more than 3.5 percent of people. He and his colleague Patrick Steptoe, who died in 1988, marched staunchly forward against tremendous opposition from churches, governments, and the press, as well as intense skepticism from scientific colleagues. As a result of their efforts, almost one million babies have gazed and giggled at parents who otherwise would have failed to conceive children.
The birth of the first ‘test tube baby’ in 1978 heralded the beginning of a new field of medicine. The technology that Edwards, of Cambridge University in the UK, and Steptoe, of the Oldham and District General Hospital in the UK, developed has given rise to numerous refinements. Now, for example, clinicians can treat male as well as female infertility. Even post-menopausal women and those with blocked fallopian tubes or non-functioning ovaries can become pregnant. And Edwards’s discoveries lay the groundwork for additional innovations in reproductive health, such as pre-implantation diagnosis of genetic disorders. His work has opened up areas further from reproductive health, such as human embryonic stem cell research, which has raised the possibility of potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases, type I diabetes, and other debilitating disorders. Since the beginning of his career, Edwards realized the wide-ranging potential for therapeutic applications of embryos created outside a woman’s body.
As a PhD student and young independent investigator, Edwards tackled a wide variety of questions in mouse reproductive biology. His studies involved fertilizing eggs in a test tube that he had collected from female mice. Mice tend to ovulate in the middle of the night. Because the eggs were available for harvest only then, this aspect of mouse physiology drew Edwards to the lab at inconvenient times.
Award presentation by Joseph Goldstein
The publication of The Origin of Species in 1858 and the birth of the first test-tube baby in 1978 are defining events in the history of human society. These events are defining because they forced us to confront some of the most fundamental ideas about being human. The instigators of these revolutionary events, Charles Darwin and Robert Edwards, share several attributes. Both owe their intellectual origins to Cambridge University in England. Darwin, the father of evolution theory, was a student at Cambridge where he was introduced to biology, geology, and natural history. Edwards, the father of in vitro fertilization, was a professor of physiology at Cambridge from 1963–1989. At Cambridge, he performed the experiments with human eggs that we honor today. His experiments were truly seminal — literally as well as figuratively.
Madame President, distinguished guests, and colleagues,
I am deeply honored to receive the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, 2001. I wish to record my grateful thanks to so many people, family, teachers, collaborators, students, and friends who in their own way have helped at every stage. First, my wife has been there through triumphs, disasters, long absences from home at work or conferences, and always ready with love and advice. It is nice to thank Dean, my nephew, for coming at the last moment to represent all my wonderful family and relations. I regret Patrick Steptoe cannot be here. It is an honour to share this platform with my fellow prizewinners, whose work has long stimulated my own interest in my field of study.
Interview with Robert Edwards