Robert Edwards has won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work to develop in vitro fertilization (IVF), the Nobel committee announced Monday. The procedure allows a human egg to be fertilized outside of the body and then implanted in a woman's; it has been used as a treatment for infertility for more than three decades.

Edwards, a professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, began research on the problem of infertility in the 1950s. The first "test-tube baby," Louise Brown, was born in 1978, an event that the Nobel expert panel called "a paradigm shift." Since then, approximately four million babies have been born worldwide via IVF, many of whom now have children of their own.

Some studies have investigated whether IVF children are at a higher risk for some diseases and malformations, but the Nobel committee asserted that IVF babies are just as healthy as those who are naturally conceived, in a press conference Monday morning held in Stockholm. And some of the rare diseases that have been seen in IVF children might be attributable to underlying fertility issues, related to older or defective eggs or sperm or other germ cell defects.

Members of the Nobel committee said that this year's prize was not intended as a statement on the ethics of human embryonic stem cell research, a field that has come under increasing scrutiny after a surprise ban on U.S. federal funding in August (which has been stayed during the appeals process). Supporters of embryonic stem cell research point out that many fertilized eggs created for IVF are left to languish in freezers, with little hope of adoption. These extra embryos could be put to better use, they argue, as new human embryonic stem cell lines. Critics of human embryonic stem cell research contend, however, that because creating stem cell lines destroys the embryo, the more ethical choice is to leave the IVF extras intact. In its earlier years, assisted reproductive technology (ART) itself was a subject of ethical debate, but it is now a generally accepted treatment for many of the estimated 10 percent of couples who are unable to conceive a child naturally.

Since it was first awarded in 1901 the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has rarely been bestowed on an advance that has led to such a singular clinical application (last year's Nobel in physiology or medicine was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work with telomeres and telomerase), and it has rarely been given for work in reproductive research.

Throughout his long career working on the problem of infertility, Edwards had many collaborators, including Patrick Steptoe, with whom he created the first fertilized human egg in the laboratory in 1968. Their work built off of previous research that had successfully fertilized rabbit eggs in vitro. In the process of translating the work to human eggs, Edwards made a series of crucial discoveries, including "how human eggs mature, how different hormones regulate their maturation and at what time point the eggs are susceptible to the fertilizing sperm," the committee explained in release.

Edwards, who is 85 and said to be in ill health, was not able to speak with the committee this morning before the announcement. Instead, the committee notified his wife, who was delighted to hear of the high honor and said she was sure her husband would be as well. It is unclear whether Edwards will be able to attend the December award ceremony in Stockholm.

The IVF research had not been predicted on an annual short list offered by Reuters for Nobel predictions. Edwards had, however, received the 2001 Lasker Award, a medical research prize that has often preceded a Nobel. A Swedish daily newspaper carried a long profile of Edwards Monday morning as their pick for the prize, but committee members were cagey about whether it would investigate a possible leak.