Nobel Prize in Medicine to Robert Edwards

Robert Edwards is the hottest name for this year’s Nobel laureate in Medicine, sources tell the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The prize, to be announced later today, highlights the well-known and established invention of in vitro fertilization.

The team who pioneered in-vitro fertilization, on the left Cambridge physiologist Dr Robert Edwards holding the world's first test tube baby Louise Joy Brown, assistant Jean Purdy and (on the right) gynaecologist Mr Patrick Steptoe.

The team who pioneered in-vitro fertilization, on the left Cambridge physiologist Dr Robert Edwards holding the world's first test tube baby Louise Joy Brown, assistant Jean Purdy and (on the right) gynaecologist Mr Patrick Steptoe.

FOTO: Keystone

Swedish version of this article.

As every year in early October, the time has come for Sweden to make a brief appearance in the media limelight as names of the 2010 Nobel laureates are made public. And this year one of the Nobel Assemblies has a major populist surprise in store.

Few things are kept so carefully under wraps as the names of the Nobel laureates. That is part of the commercial concept of the Prize. The news is supposed to explode simultaneously all over the world regardless of the fact that the names of most of the laureates are known only to very few – with the exception sometimes of the laureates for literature and for peace.

But lately the Nobel secrets have started seeping out in advance. The amount of speculations has increased and often enough it is correct. That is especially true for the Medicine prize, which is the perhaps most widely comprehensible subject among the natural sciences.

This is the start of the Nobel announcements week and there are strong signs that the prize in Medicine will attract huge attention. Many signs indicate that this year the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Hospital will honour IVF, in vitro fertilization, or more specifically the 84 year old British IVF pioneer Robert “Bob” Edwards, connected to Cambridge University.

He was the man who in 1968, together with Patrick Steptoe, started the final work to develop methods of fertilizing eggs outside of the human body. The two men had an uphill struggle.

In the beginning they had no support from the medical establishment. They were vilified and rejected. They had to open a clinic on their own in a small hospital outside of Cambridge. In order to attract resources they deliberately used the media as a lever. That did not endear them to their colleagues.

However this hostility vanished in a flash on the 25th of July 1978 when baby Louise Joy Brown was born, the world’s first test tube baby who became an instant world sensation. To date around 4 million IVF babies have been born across the world.

Patrick Steptoe died in 1988. Robert Edwards has received some rewards throughout the years, top of which is generally considered the Lasker Prize of 2001. Still he has remained relatively unknown and unnoticed even in his own country. Up till now, one may assume. The story of IVF is so fascinating and accessible to a general public that this year’s prize may live long in people’s minds.

IVF and Robert Edwards are not words to be found anywhere in the speculations ahead of this year’s Nobel Prize.

The lead source of speculations nowadays is the large news agency Thomson Reuters, which since 2002 has produced a top list of its own with so called citation prizewinners. It relies on the much-criticized technique of counting the number of citations in scientific journals from the last 30 years. The list covers medicine, physics, chemistry and economics.

Thomson Reuters boast of having had at least one name correct each Nobel year. For medicine the news agency has this year put its money on the “obesity hormone” leptine, stem cell research or the discovery of dendritic cells in the immune system.

Looking at another important source of the Nobel speculations game, the renowned American Lasker Prize, supports this view. Almost every Nobel laureate in medicine has previously received the Lasker Prize.

Another wild guess is that the Nobel Assembly will finally put its foot down and reward the Hugo project, the much-touted gigantic mapping of the human genome. It was first presented with great hullabaloo ten years ago, but is not at all in the Nobel picture, say those in the know.

With the announcement of year’s laureate at least the Nobel Assembly will be spared the usual criticism of choosing complicated basic research with no practical significance.

Senior medical correspondent
Svenska Dagbladet

English translation by Lars Ryding

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