A personal tribute to Robert G Edwards, Winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Prof Robert G. Edwards, a distinguished scientist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology, 2010, is the chief architect of the in vitro fertilisation technique. Two decades back, he found the answer to infertility and made it possible for 85 per cent of infertile couples to have a child. Unfortunately, as he has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last two years, he does not even know that he has bagged the Nobel Prize. His wife and long-term scientific companion, Dr Ruth Fowler Edwards, received the prize on his behalf. In a personal tribute, Prof Pushpa M. Bhargava, noted scientist who worked with him at Cambridge University, recalls his association with Prof Edwards.

He gave hope to infertile couples

Just after 1980 when Bob Edwards had purchased the Bourn House near Cambridge, England, to set up the first “test-tube” baby clinic (the Bourn Clinic) to treat infertility cases requiring what we know today as IVF (in vitro fertilisation), the technique for which he received the Nobel Prize this year, he drove me to the then heavily guarded building, and chuckled. All around, he said, were TV cameras poised on the top of the adjoining buildings to record what was happening inside Bourn House, and I would become a marked man!

Bob had been a celebrity in Britain (and in many other parts of the world) for nearly three years, not only for having given IVF to the infertile couples but also ignoring the church-going crowd that felt that man had no right to interfere if God had made a couple infertile. He realised that if any organic malfunctioning could be considered a disease, infertility was the most widely prevalent disease around the world, affecting 10 to 15 per cent couples of child-bearing age, and he had given new hope to them. In fact, today, advances based on Bob Edwards’ work between 1970 and 1980 have made it possible for 85 per cent of infertile couples to have a child.

So he put all his money in the Bourn Clinic. It was a risk few would have taken, for the success rate of IVF at that time was less than 10 per cent. Louise Brown, the first so-called test-tube baby that he and the late Patrick Streptoe had delivered on July 25, 1978, was their first success after over 30 failures. But Bob Edwards recognised that nothing worthwhile in this world was ever accomplished without taking a risk, believing in oneself, and going that extra mile that others didn’t dare to walk.

Bourn Hall, in the village of Bourn, became a landmark, and the techniques that Bob had pioneered spawned a host of new, related technologies. Infertility clinics (good or bad) started sprouting around the corner everywhere, specially in India which even today has no regulation to control them, over the next three decades. This mushrooming was an anathema to the innate sense of ethics and morality in Bob. So when he started his second journal (the first being, now widely known, Human Reproduction, Reproductive BioMedicine (RBM) Online, he asked me to write an article on ethical issues in modern biological technologies which was published in September 2003 issue of this journal.

The IVF and related techniques were by then well accepted. The question was that of ethics in the practice of these techniques which became to be collectively known as assisted reproductive technologies (ART). As my article pointed out, the scope of unethical behaviour and practices on part of the practitioners of ART was immense, and it was being exploited fully to make easy money at the cost of ignorance of people.

In delivering Louise Brown after many failures, in setting up the Bourn Clinic, and in starting two highly successful journals, Bob showed that patience, self-confidence, and a real commitment to the legitimate interests of the people based on strong ethics and highly developed professionalism, pays in the long run. He was unfazed when, in 1971, the Medical Research Council of Britain (MRC), one of the most forward-looking scientific grant-giving organisations in the world), denied financial support to Bob Edwards for work which led to the Nobel Prize. He seemed always short of money. When in 2002, I persuaded him to come to Hyderabad for the Silver Jubilee of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which he had visited earlier, he asked if in addition to his travel, board and lodging expenses, a few hundred pounds could be paid to him. I arranged for an ART clinic in Hyderabad to do so. As a courtesy, he then visited the clinic which, today, is doubly proud of that visit.

I have watched the modern biological revolution from close quarters since its beginning in 1953, and I believe that there are not many who have during this period succeeded on so many counts as Bob has. However, the fact remains that success is never the outcome of just one individual’s effort and no one is, I am sure, more aware of it than Bob Edwards.

The person he would be missing the most at this time is C.R. Austin (known to his friends as Bunny Austin), without whose support all through, Bob would not have got to where he did. An unsung hero of reproduction biology, Bunny was a gentleman par excellence in the traditional British sense, who left most of the talking to his very articulate wife, Patricia. I came to know them when I was working in the National Institute for Medical Research in London during 1956-57. In the later years, he was to become the world’s foremost authority on the mammalian egg. He discovered, independently with M.C. Chang of the Worcester Foundation in New England in the US, the phenomena of “capacitation” which Bob Edwards recognised as the single most important hurdle in developing the technique of IVF – that is, fertilising the human egg with human sperm in vitro (say, in a test tube!), allowing the fertilised egg to develop initially also in the laboratory, and then transferring the embryo thus generated outside the body, into the uterus of a woman for further normal development.

Mammalian sperm are infertile when ejaculated by man. They acquire the capacity (hence the term, “capacitation”) to fertilise an egg during passage through the female reproductive tract. Therefore, for successful fertilisation of human egg by human sperm in the lab, one would need to first capacitate the human sperm.

Bunny Austin moved to Cambridge as the Darwin Professor of Animal Morphology in the Physiological Laboratory of the University in the 1960s. Bob who was with Bunny at the National Institute for Medical Research, also joined him there. It was there on the fourth floor of the Physiological Laboratory that he developed the technique of capacitating the human sperm in vitro and then using the capacitated sperm to fertilise a human egg also in vitro what we know today as IVF.

When Bunny moved to Cambridge, he purchased the most prestigious building in the village of Toft near Cambridge, called the Manor House. It was listed in the Cambridgeshire Directory of Heritage Buildings, and was not the most comfortable one in the world. My wife and I stayed there as guests of the Austins more than once, in an upstairs room the floor of which was sloping and creaked at each step. But the overall beauty of the building had a magical effect even on visitors and I remember many delightful evenings spent there with Bob Edwards, and his wife, Ruth. It was there that I learnt about Bob’s fascination with fast cars and fast driving, violating every rule of the road, which very few Britishers do. He could persuade me to be driven by him, I think only once!

After retiring from Cambridge, Bunny and Pat migrated to a remote corner of eastern Australia, where he passed away, unknown and unsung, a few years ago. Both Bob and I lost an extremely dear friend. Bunny wasn’t even elected to The Royal Society, a grave omission on the part of the Society. Bob’s election to the Fellowship of The Royal Society, perhaps, partly made up for it.

Bob has been an unusual entrepreneur who expanded his entrepreneurship to areas that are generally considered taboo for scientists. For example, he stood for membership of the British Parliament, and failed. But that was probably his only major failure. In everything else he tried, he succeeded.

Bob has been a Fellow of Churchill College in Cambridge, and my wife and I remember dining at the College as Bob’s guests. There was never a dull moment when he was around, and he always livened the dinner table.

The Nobel Foundation did not do Bob a favour by awarding Nobel Prize for 2010 to him. Bob should have received the Prize 20 years ago, around 1990, by which time many with much lesser accomplishment to their credit had been given this honour.

As of now, he is sick. I spoke to him last nearly two years ago when I was in Cambridge. It was clear to me even then that he was very unwell. As he is not well, his wife received the Nobel Prize on his behalf.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time in recent years that the Nobel Foundation has slipped. It did so when it conferred the Nobel Prize on Luc Montagnier and a colleague of his for discovering HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It should have been shared with Robert Gallo of the US. In fact, the Nobel Prize may have been given (which would not have been right) only to Bob Gallo, but for the French government’s active and persistent intervention to protect the legitimate interest of Luc Montaignier, for Bob Gallo was far better known even for work on HIV and AIDS, and had already made several other major discoveries such as of interleukin-2 and of HTLV1 and HTLV2, the human leukaemia-causing viruses.

It is a thought that if Luc Montaignier had done his work in India, he would have been probably only ridiculed as happened to Subhas Mukherjee who delivered the first Indian test-tube baby, Kanupriya Agarwal, on October 3, 1978, just 69 days after Louise Brown was born.

In fact, soon after Louise Brown was born, Bunny Austin came to India at my invitation and gave a lecture in the then Regional Research Laboratory (now Indian Institute of Chemical Technology) at Hyderabad on the work of Bob Edwards. He then asked me about Subhas Mukherjee and said that if the Indian scientific community and the Government of India would certify to the brandied facts of Kanupriya’s birth, Bob Edwards would be happy to share the credit with Subhas Mukherjee. If that had happened, Mukherjee wouldn’t have committed suicide, and would have shared the Nobel Prize with Edwards. I wonder how many such opportunities we have missed and will continue to miss.

It is said that when a well-known exporter of crabs from India to the US was chastised by his American customers for sending them a consignment of crabs in containers that had no lids, he told the Americans not to worry as they were Indian crabs and as soon as any of them would try to climb up, all the others would pull it down. It is this Indian Crab Syndrome that has often prevented the emergence of Indian Nobel Prize winners.

A personal tribute to Robert G Edwards, Winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. The Tribune, 2nd January 2011, Op. Ed. page.

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