Making birth possible for millions

For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded one of its coveted medals — and $1-million-plus in prize money — to a scientist who worked in the area of reproduction.

The British biologist Robert G. Edwards won the Nobel Prize in "physiology or medicine" today for pioneering in vitro fertilization with a colleague, Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist and medical researcher who died in 1988. The pair's efforts led to the birth of the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978.

Since then, four million babies have been born with the assistance of IVF, in which sperm and egg are united outside the mother's body and then transferred to the womb.

The Nobel Committee waited more than 30 years to make the award. Edwards, who spent most of his career at Cambridge University, is 85 years old and "not in a position to understand the honor he has received today,” a colleague, Dr. Michael Macnamee, was quoted as saying in a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade.

Edwards and Steptoe unlocked many of the secrets of the human reproductive system on their way to success with IVF. They tried 40 embryo transfers before they achieved a pregnancy, which turned out to be ectopic. The second try led to the birth of a daughter to Leslie and Gilbert Brown of Oldham, in Greater Manchester, England.

Like virtually all medical visionaries, Edwards and Steptoe were subjected to vitriolic attacks. The British medical establishment withheld all manner of support from them, even after Louise Brown's birth.

But the joy of millions of families all over the world who were able to hold their own babies as a result of IVF technology eventually quelled the critics.

Louise Brown, herself the mother of a three-year-old boy, said of the award today: "It's fantastic news; me and Mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."

Blood draw

The science writer Douglas Starr has made something of a specialty of blood.

His book, Blood: The Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, and the PBS documentary series it inspired, Red Gold, cover the waterfront on this vital component of life, and our relationship to it.

The PBS website has a great discussion guide that sums up the topic impressively, and includes a timeline of important developments in our evolving relationship with blood.

Red Gold

Even before we understood its function, humans invested blood with value and meaning. As Starr writes in an essay in the guide:

Blood: It’s strange that this most familiar of substances has always been so laden with feeling, so heavily freighted with mystery and symbolism. Consider the vocabulary: blood of our fathers; blood of Christ; the nation’s blood; lifeblood; blood brothers, blood sacrament, blood libel.…The history of blood involves not only medicine, but also culture and religion. It is a story of change — how a mysterious liquid became a global commodity and reflected the soul of each society that used it.

Informed reporters an endangered species

I have seen a couple of blog posts lately grousing that the "mainstream media" is choosing not to cover this or that event or development, as if to suggest that a conspiracy is afoot to keep people in the dark on a particular topic.

As a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, I am a member of the mainstream media, and I wonder if people have a good sense of what's happening in our industry. Ad revenues have been dropping, mostly as a result of services available on the Internet, and hordes of writers and editors have been bought out or laid off in recent years.

Fewer bodies mean less time per project -- less time to learn about a new topic, and often no time to take on a tough topic.

Just for example, I have seen complaints that many important aspects of childbirth, the topic I address here in Birth Story, don't get the attention they deserve in the media. I couldn't agree more, but I also know that a good airing of the issues would require a depth on the bench that simply isn't there at most media outlets right now.

The Tuesday Science section of the New York Times is one of the rare dedicated sections left that cover science and health. Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Times, said she has noticed that that section addresses health topics more than science ones these days, in a story posted by Mallary Jean Tenore on the Poynter Institute's website.

Readers appear to want stories that relate directly to their own lives, said Angier, who has written a number of science books, including Woman: An Intimate Geography. Her latest is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

"One of the things I try to do when writing about science is make it seem like it's part of your life already by making things into characters and protagonists, even if they're just molecules," she said.

Charles Petit, chief tracker for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, agrees that strong articles on science topics are becoming scarce.

While such issues as stem cell research and global warming still appear on newspapers' front pages, they are less likely to be written by reporters who have a solid understanding of those topics. So the stories are superficial, and readers don't get what they need to understand them, Petit told Tenore.

Even scientists are worried about this trend. In a Pew Research Center study published last year, nearly half of scientists polled said oversimplification of scientific findings in the media is a major problem. A whopping 85% of scientists said that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science.