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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - British physiologist Robert Edwards, whose work led to the first "test-tube baby", won the 2010 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology, the prize-awarding institute said on Monday.
Sweden's Karolinska Institute lauded Edwards, 85, for bringing joy and hope to the more than 10 percent of couples worldwide who suffer from infertility.
Known as the father of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), Edwards picked up the prize of 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) for what the institute called a "milestone in the development of modern medicine".
As many as 4 million babies have been born since the first IVF baby in 1978 as a result of the techniques Edwards developed, together with a now-deceased colleague, Patrick Steptoe, the institute said in a statement.
"Bob Edwards changed the way we think about having babies," said Dr Alan Thornhill, scientific director of the London Bridge Fertility, Gynaecology and Genetics Center.
The Roman Catholic Church strongly opposes IVF as an affront to human dignity that destroys more human life than it creates because scientists discard or store unused fertilized embryos.
"In vitro fertilization has led directly to the deliberate destruction of millions of human embryos," said Professor David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Center, a Catholic research institute in Oxford, England.
Nevertheless, Edwards and Steptoe, a gynecologist, pursued their work despite opposition from churches, governments, many in the media and skepticism from scientific colleagues.
They struggled to raise funds and had to rely on private donations but in 1968 they developed methods to fertilize human eggs outside the body.
Working at Cambridge University, they began replacing embryos into infertile mothers in 1972. But several pregnancies spontaneously aborted due to what they later discovered were flawed hormone treatments.
In 1977, they tried a new procedure which did not involve hormone treatments and relied instead on precise timing. On July 25 of the next year, Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, was born.
"We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time," she said in a statement released with her mother.
The 32-year-old, who has stayed in touch with Edwards all her life, is married and has one son who was conceived naturally.
Her birth caused a media sensation as it raised questions about medical ethics, drew religious concerns and piqued basic human curiosity. Many wondered in the early stages of treatment whether an IVF baby would grow up normally.
"Long-term follow-up studies have shown that IVF children are as healthy as other children," Karolinska said.
In 1980, Edwards and Steptoe founded the Bourn Hall Clinic at Cambridge, the world's first IVF clinic, where gynecologists and cell biologists around the world have trained.
Tom Mathews, the clinic's medical director was first introduced to Edwards in 1983 and was immediately impressed with his passion for IVF.
"As a person he always found time to talk to the patients about what was happening in the laboratory and rejoiced when each IVF baby was born," he said.
Today, as many as 1-2 percent of babies in the western world are conceived through IVF methods, said committee member Christer Hoog, a professor of cell biology, told a news conference.
But access to IVF varies around the world. Many European healthcare systems fund it, but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine says treatment in the United States can cost patients up to $12,400.
Edwards, who has five daughters and 11 grandchildren, was motivated by a desire to help families.
"The most important thing in life is having a child," Edwards has been quoted by his clinic as saying: "Nothing is more special than a child."
Steptoe died in 1988. Edwards, who is ill, was not available to speak to the media. But his wife Ruth said in a statement that the family was thrilled and delighted about the prize.
"His dedication and single-minded determination despite opposition from many quarters has led to successful application of his pioneering research," she said.
Medicine, which has in the past highlighted important discoveries such as penicillin, genetic engineering and blood-typing, is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year.
Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.