Tuesday, October 05, 2010

2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to Robert G. Edwards "for the development of in vitro fertilization". They should have added "in humans."

This is a technological achievement, one that was based on years of work with other animals.

I do not favor awarding Nobel Prizes for technology. I prefer to give the science prizes to those who have advanced our fundamental understanding of the universe. This prize is for medicine, which is technology, so it doesn't violate any rules. But in the past the prize in Physiology or Medicine has usually been for basic research.

It worries me that there may have been non-scientific motives behind this year's selection. We saw a horrid example of that last year when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced and I hope this isn't a trend.

Here's an example of how the award is being treated in the press [British IVF pioneer Robert Edwards gets Nobel Prize].
As well as leading to a host of new treatments for infertility, the work also founded the principles behind stem cell research, cloning and techniques that would allow couples to prevent passing on inheritable diseases to their children.

Christer Höög, professor of molecular biology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and a member of the Nobel Prize Committee, said the birth represented a "paradigm shift"

"It showed for the first time that it is possible to treat infertility," he said.

Prof Edwards' work was highly controversial at the time and there was strong opposition to what was seen as 'playing God' and the research had to be privately funded.
The good news is that the Vatican is really, really, pissed! [Vatican official criticises Nobel win for IVF pioneer]. I think it's because the Roman Catholic Church is pro-life.


  1. The way I see it, it should have been given for the discovery of stem cells and iPS cells, (maybe not this year, but a few years down the road), not for this. Those are fundamental insights into biology and it would have been a lot more of a statement too, if they had political reasons for the choice.

    As it is, there's no way another prize will go to something relatively closely related such as stem cell research in the near future so that field will not be recognized any time soon.

    On top of that, if your mission is the betterment of humanity, you don't award IVF in a time when the need for drastic reduction of the human population is one of the most pressing issues we're facing...

  2. Well I'm glad I'm not the only one let down.

  3. I'm also glad to hear other people are not over-whelmed. I was not impressed at all by this choice, but seemed to be the only one at work who thought that way.

  4. Last year Dr. Narinder Kapahi, the inventor of optical fiber, the person who coined the term fiber optic was passed over in favor of some obscure techncian. If you are awarding a prize for technological achievement at least givw it to the right guy.


  5. The achievement of human IVF was preceded by many years of arduous basic research from Edwards himself, and the Nobel committee are very clear in stating that this is part of their motivation for the prize when you read their advanced information. It's just a pity that his basic science achievements have not been highlighted in the general information to the public.

    I would say that we have undoubtedly learned something fundamental about how life develops thanks to Edwards' work, and that the Nobel committee knows and commends this. The fact that his work and the development of the techniques together with Patrick Steptoe has lead to a completely new field of medicine is of course also significant.

    There are many other findings that are worthy of the prize, it's true, but that doesn't take away from Edwards' achievement.

    The Nobel committee also very clearly credit Gregory Pincus and Min Chueh Chang for IVF in lab animals before Edwards, but unfortunately they are dead and cannot receive the prize. So if anything I would complain that the prize came too late. I expect there will be a more open recognition of their work when the prize ceremony comes around.

    I for one think it was a great choice.

  6. On a flip side, for once the chemistry prize went for work in chemistry!

  7. "The good news is that the Vatican is really, really, pissed!"

    And yet the link provided does not support that view. The comments there don't support "really, really pissed" nor is it a statement from the Vatican but the personal views (and expressly stated by the speaker to be such) of someone who works on such issues for the Vatican.

    Larry would no doubt call such reporting "dishonest" if done by someone he disagrees with.

  8. My opinion, in keeping with the general trend that Nobel prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been awarded, is that the prize is a de facto prize in biology. No one argues that IVF research is unimportant, but I don't think that Edwards's research actually demonstrated something "fundamental about how life develops." If demonstrating something fundamental about development were truly the target of this year's Nobel, then I'm sure there's a lot of developmental biologists deserving of recognition.

    This year's award feels piddling compared to the effects on biology (and medicine) of the research recognised in the last decade.