Robert Edwards celebrated the second birthday of two of his “test-tube” babies, Sophie and Jack Emery, in London in July 1998.

ALASTAIR GRANT • Associated Press file ,

Obituary: Robert Edwards, pioneer of "test-tube” babies revolutionized childbearing

  • Article by: Rob Stein
  • Washington Post
  • April 11, 2013 - 7:24 PM

Robert Edwards, a British physiologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for helping develop the controversial in vitro fertilization techniques that led to the birth of the first “test-tube” baby in 1978 and revolutionized childbearing around the world, died April 10 at his home near Cambridge, England. He was 87.

The University of Cambridge announced his death but did not disclose the cause. Edwards spent much of his career at the university and in 1980 co-founded Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge as the world’s first center for in vitro fertilization.

As early as the 1950s, Edwards had the idea that fertilization outside the body could represent a possible treatment for infertility. Other scientists had shown that egg cells from rabbits could be fertilized with sperm in test tubes, producing offspring. Edwards decided to investigate whether similar methods could be used to fertilize human egg cells.

In a series of studies conducted with various co-workers, Edwards made a number of fundamental discoveries.

He clarified how human eggs mature, how hormones regulate their maturation and at which point the eggs can be fertilized. He also determined the conditions under which sperm is activated and can fertilize the egg.

By analyzing the conditions necessary for an egg and sperm to survive outside the womb, Edwards developed a medium — which he called “a magic culture fluid” — in which to achieve fertilization.

In 1969, his efforts met with success when, for the first time, a human egg was fertilized in a test tube. But the fertilized egg did not develop beyond a single cell division. Edwards suspected that eggs that had matured in the ovaries before they were removed for in vitro fertilization would function better. He looked for possible ways to safely obtain such eggs.

Edwards contacted Patrick Steptoe, a British gynecologist at the Oldham and District General Hospital near Manchester, England. Steptoe was one of the pioneers in laparoscopy, which allows examination of the ovaries through an optical instrument.

Steptoe used the laparoscope to remove eggs from the ovaries, and Edwards put the eggs in cell culture and added sperm. The fertilized egg cells divided several times and formed early embryos composed of eight cells, known as a blastocyst.

“I’ll never forget the day I looked down the microscope and saw something funny in the cultures ... What I saw was a human blastocyst gazing up at me,” Edwards recalled in 2008.

The research became the topic of intense ethical debate. Religious leaders, ethicists and scientists demanded that the project be stopped.

Despite the intense criticism and trouble obtaining funding, Edwards and Steptoe persevered. In 1971, they performed their first attempt to implant a fertilized egg in a patient. They were not successful, however, until 1978.

Lesley and John Brown sought treatment at the Oldham General Hospital after nine years of failed attempts to have a child. In vitro fertilization was carried out, and when the fertilized egg had developed into a blastocyst, it was transferred into Lesley Brown’s body. On July 25, 1978, a healthy girl, Louise Brown, was born at the hospital after a full-term pregnancy.

Today, approximately 4 million babies have been born using IVF.

IVF forced society to reconsider many assumptions. Family members have supplied eggs, sperm and wombs to relatives, scrambling traditional relationships.

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