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Science & Technology

IVF-ET/ Dear Edwards, How Many Children's Lives Has Your Nobel Cost?

Fr. Colombo, Professor of Bioethics, comments on the Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded to British physicist Robert Geoffrey Edwards and the possible eugenic use of the IVF-ET techniques  


The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for Medicine was awarded to 85-year-old British reproductive and embryology physicist Robert Geoffrey Edwards, a professor at Cambridge University. The British scholar became known worldwide as the "pioneer of human in vitro fertilization", since the evening of July 25, 1978, when, shortly before midnight, Louise Joy Brown, the first "test tube baby" was born in the Obstetrics department of Oldham General Hospital, near Manchester (UK). Mrs. Brown, in turn, became the mother of a child conceived naturally in 2006.

Patrick Christopher Steptoe also contributed to the birth, although he died in 1988 in Canterbury without seeing his role recognized, that of playing a decisive part in the introduction of the technique of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and of Embryonic In Utero Transfer (ET).

The generation and development of an early mammalian embryo outside the body of a female had already been performed in a laboratory and applied in animal husbandry well before the end of the 70s (the first experiment documenting IVF-ET was published in Nature in 1959 by CF Chang, who birthed a rabbit), and there was no lack in human attempts at IVF, which benefited from the studies of Anne McLaren and John Biggers on in vitro culture of embryos, dating back to the early 50s.

However, it was only because of the work of professor Edwards that the technique of artificial fertilization passed successfully from animal to human, opening the way for the clinical application of the technique for sterile couples through the transfer of embryos to a woman's uterus, after these had been developed in a laboratory for several days, observed attentively under the microscope and eventually selected.

The rest of the story is known and has marked one of the most controversial chapters in gynecology, obstetrics, and andrology in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, combining their efforts with those of biology of reproduction and embryology, a new type of medical specialty, called "reproductive medicine," has been brought to life. Today, it has many followers in Western countries and (unheard of, considering the deplorable state of other clinical disciplines, essential for the survival and health of the population) in some third world countries.