Dr. Robert Edwards, a member of the team that pioneered the reproductive assistance technique called in vitro fertililzation (IVF), has died at age 87, according to news reports. IVF is a standard treatment for infertility, and millions of babies have been born since the technique was first developed in 1978. More from The Associated Press:
Together with Dr. Patrick Steptoe, Edwards developed in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which resulted in the birth in 1978 of the world's first test tube baby, Louise Brown. At the time, the two were accused of playing God and interfering with nature.
Since then, the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology estimates that about 5 million babies have been born using the technique, which creates embryos in the laboratory before transferring them into a woman.
Edwards' ''success in IVF was one of the 20th century's great medical feats, pursued at long odds and despite great opprobrium,'' International Federation of Fertility Societies President Joe Leigh Simpson said.
''He laid the groundwork for infertile couples worldwide to have children, with 1-4 per cent of all babies in Europe, North America and Australia now born by assisted reproductive technologies started by Professor Edwards. He will be greatly missed.''
Experts say about 350,000 babies are born by IVF every year, mostly to people with infertility problems, single people and gay and lesbian couples.
''(Edwards) was an extraordinary scientist,'' said Dr. Peter Braude, emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology at King's College London, who was at Cambridge when Edwards and Steptoe were developing IVF.
''There was such hysteria around the kind of work he was doing,'' Braude said, noting that Edwards stopped his research for two years after he published details on how he had created embryos in the laboratory. ''He wanted to work out what the right thing to do was, whether he should continue or whether he was out on a limb.''
Braude said Edwards collected donor eggs from women in Oldham, where Steptoe worked. Edwards then put the eggs into test tubes which he strapped to his legs to keep them warm before catching the train to Cambridge, where he would attempt to fertilize them in the laboratory.
After Brown was born, Braude recalled a celebration at Cambridge, where scientists toasted Edwards and Steptoe's achievement by drinking champagne out of plastic cups.
Braude said public opinion has evolved considerably since then.
''I think people now understand that (Edwards) only had the best motivation,'' he said. ''There are few biologists that have done something so practical and made a huge difference for the entire world.''
In 2010, Edwards was awarded the Nobel prize in medicine or physiology for the development of IVF.
Image: IVF laboratory, via Shutterstock