|Robert Edwards with the world's first IVF baby Louise Brown and her own baby (right) and mother (centre)[AFP]
Robert Edwards, the British scientist who helped make millions of "test tube babies" a reality, has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, received the award on Monday for his work developing in vitro fertilization, or IVF - the science behind what is now popularly known as test tube babies.
The Nobel committee has chosen to recognise Edwards a full five decades after he first began his research into fertilisation outside the womb as a solution to infertility. Eggs are removed from a woman, fertilised with sperm in a lab dish and then implanted back into her uterus.
"His achievements have made it possible to treat infertility, a medical condition afflicting a large proportion of humanity, including more than 10 per cent of all couples worldwide," the committee in Stockholm said in its citation.
While in vitro fertilisation had already been proved possible in rabbits, it was Edward who developed the technology for humans.
His research in a laboratory at Cambridge, England, culminated on July 25, 1978, with the birth of Louise Brown the world's first test tube baby.
Brown, who had a naturally-conceived child in 2007, greeted the news with a joint statement with her mother Lesley.
"It's fantastic news, me and mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF (in vitro fertilisation) has been given the recognition he deserves.
"We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."
Like the contraceptive pill, IVF has had far-reaching social consequences.
It has enabled career women the chance of extending their fertility way far beyond their 40th birthday and given single women the chance to be a mum, even if the child does not have a dad.
Edwards ploughed ahead with his research in the face of strong resistance, both from the scientific community and from the Catholic hierarchy.
True to form, the Vatican criticised the Nobel committee's choice on Monday.
Many scientists had concerns about the likelihood of birth defects. Fears that the technology is prone to abuse exist today, in particular about the potential for screening an embryo's DNA to chose its gender or physical characteristics.
Multiple pregnancies remain one of the biggest problems in IVF, with greater risk of children being born underweight and experiencing development problems.
Edwards long argued that IVF works just like natural conception, and on Monday the Nobel committee backed his stance.
"It is a safe and effective therapy. It is regulated through strict ethical guidelines and long-term studies have established that IVF children are as healthy as other children," the committee's Christer Hoog said in his tribute to Edwards.
Births brought about by IVF treatment have indeed become common place. Nearly four million test tube babies are estimated to have been born around the globe.
Many scientists working in the reproductive field took the occasion to praise Edwards for his contribution. There were also many comments on its tardiness - Edwards is 85 years old, and is in poor health. And the prize comes too late entirely for Patrick Steptoe, the gynaecologist surgeon with whom Edwards developed the technique.
Steptoe, who cofounded the world’s first IVF clinic with Edwards three decades ago, died in 1988. The pair began their experiments in the 1950s.
The award is "long overdue," said Martin Johnson, a colleague of Edwards at Cambridge University.
"He was a real visionary, and always ahead of his time on so many issues. He is also an amazing human being - warm and generous," the professor said.