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Radio Review: The Life Scientific - Professor Sir John Gurdon

4 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 691

The Life Scientific: Professor Sir John Gurdon

BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 18 December 2012

Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili

'The Life Scientific: Professor Sir John Gurdon', BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 18 December 2012

Shortly after being awarded the 2012 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, Professor Sir John Gurdon was interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Life Scientific'. Sharing the Nobel prize with Professor Shinya Yamanaka from the Kyoto University, Japan for their discoveries in cell reprogramming, the Nobel committee said Gurdon and Yamanaka had 'revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop'.

Gurdon was quizzed by scientist and presenter Professor Jim Al-Khalili on everything from his famously poor performance at school to his predictions about human cloning. The interview gave us a glimpse into the hard work and grit that goes into producing a piece of research worthy of the Nobel prize.

Gurdon, who is currently professor at the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, spoke about his early research as a PhD student at Oxford University. During this time he attempted to replicate the experiments of Professors Robert Briggs and Thomas King – who had successfully cloned frogs from embryonic cells – and in 1962 succeeded in cloning a frog using mature adult cells from the gut, which eventually earned him the Nobel prize.

Just fifty years on, it is already difficult to think back to a time when genetics and modern biology were still in their infancy. Motivated not by the goal of cloning in itself, Gurdon's research was primarily seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether all cells in an organism contain the same genetic information. He showed that transferring the nucleus of a specialised cell from the gut of an adult frog into a frog egg could give rise to a new, fully functioning clone.

The experiment demonstrated that, not only did mature cells contain all the genetic information needed to produce a new organism, but also that the process of cell specialisation could be reversed – under the right circumstances mature cells could revert back to an embryonic state. This conclusion was described on the programme as a 'cornerstone of modern biology' by Gurdon's colleague Professor Ron Laskey. It has paved the way for major advancements in regenerative medicine.

Gurdon is clearly excited by the potential of cell reprogramming. He discusses what he sees as its most promising applications, in particular cell replacement therapy for the eye condition, age-related macular degeneration, and the clinical trials currently underway. While he cannot see a therapeutic application for human cloning at present, he predicts that if a medical need for cloning was clearly articulated it would eventually be publicly accepted and ethically justified.

This view was echoed by ethicists Professor John Wyatt and Professor Julian Savulescu. Gurdon draws parallels with the early work into IVF by Professor Sir Robert Edwards and Dr Patrick Steptoe, whose pioneering research was not widely accepted until the benefits of the technique became clear. Incidentally, he also predicts human cloning will be technically achievable within the next fifty years.

The most insightful bits of any interview on 'The Life Scientific' are usually the personal anecdotes of the everyday process of doing science. Gurdon describes how an early setback at school – coming bottom in a class of 250 pupils and being judged by his tutor to have no future as a scientist – did not discourage him from pursuing his interests. In fact he seems to take particular pride in placing last. His personal accounts of conducting research in his early career bring to life the long hours in the lab, the painstaking work and the perseverance that are behind every scientific discovery.

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