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Radio Review: The Reunion - Dolly the Sheep

24 September 2012
Appeared in BioNews 674

The Reunion: Dolly the Sheep

BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 24 July 2012

Presented by Sue MacGregor

'The Reunion: Dolly the Sheep', BBC Radio 4, Sunday 9 September 2012

In February 1997, sheep 6LL3 made global front page news. Better known as 'Dolly', she was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell.

Last week on Radio 4, five of the people involved in the creation of Dolly at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh were reunited to discuss the impact that their breakthrough has had.

Joining the presenter, Sue MacGregor, were Sir Ian Wilmut, who was head of the Dolly team; Professor Keith Campbell who led the scientific research; Dr Bill Ritchie, who implemented the cloning theory; Marjorie Ritchie, the Roslin Institute's surgeon; and Dr John Bracken, the anaesthetist present at Dolly's birth.

The programme set the scene by describing the scientific context of the work. Until Dolly, the possibility of cloning from a differentiated adult cell was 'futuristic', existing only in fiction. However, Sir Ian Wilmut never doubted that it would be possible, saying, 'We believed at that time that we probably would be able to clone an adult'.

The five individuals brought huge personality to their science during the interview. When asked why a sheep was chosen for the cloning procedure, Professor Campbell wryly answered: 'We cloned a sheep because we couldn’t afford a cow!'

The enormity of what was achieved and the perseverance required to get there is perhaps most striking in their admission of the over 270 failed attempts. Dr Bracken would sleep in the animal house, in order to monitor the pregnant ewes. He was present at the birth of Dolly, and after witnessing numerous failed pregnancies, it was with relief that he noted that 'this was a very viable lamb'.

Dr Bracken also came up with her name. Taken from the origin of the cloned cell – the mammary gland – the Dolly Parton connection was made!

News of Dolly was leaked to the world by the Observer newspaper, and one of the first reactions was to make the link to the potential for cloning humans. Ritchie described how angry she got at suggestions of cloning humans because 'that was not at all what the thinking [behind Dolly] was, it was all to benefit medicine in the longer term'.

The team tried to persuade the public that human cloning was not the intention of the research nor the right thing to do, instead advocating research into the production of embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos.

Looking back, Wilmut remains reticent and acknowledges that human cloning is likely to be possible, if not probable, in the future. In response to research on cloning humans being banned in America, he replied that it may not always be what it appears, 'they can prohibit the use of federal funds but [scientists] may be able to use private funding'.

Overall the interview was largely retrospective and nostalgic. It did not discuss the future and the potential as much as I hoped. Though the guests were very personable and gave witty anecdotes with a level of honesty present in those who respect and enjoy each other’s company.

Cloning technology has progressed at great speeds since Dolly’s birth 15 years ago, as highlighted by MacGregor at the end of the programme. Professor Campbell summarised how some, but not all, of the expectations that arose from Dolly have been met.

'What Dolly demonstrated, in the fact that a cell was not fixed and could either go forward or backwards in its development, has provided us with great insights into how cells specialise and great possibilities for therapeutic medicines. On the other hand, many of the benefits of the cloning procedure in terms of therapeutic proteins, improved animal breeding, global food security, etcetera, have not been realised'.

He blames this on people being against genetically modified products, and now one of his biggest roles is helping to change people’s opinions on this.

Dolly was euthanised and then stuffed and is now in the National Museum of Scotland. Dr Bracken has been to visit her once or twice, and says that it brings back 'happy memories but also sadness, as she is no longer here and she was very much part of what we had achieved. I felt privileged to be part of it'.

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