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Event Review: Darwin Lecture on Science and Medicine

11 November 2013
Appeared in BioNews 730

Stem Cell Research and Potential Applications to the Treatment of Eye Diseases

Presented by Professor Sir Martin Evans

Organised by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Linnean Society of London

Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London W1G 0AE

Thursday 31 October 2013

'Stem Cell Research and Potential Applications to the Treatment of Eye Diseases', presented by Professor Sir Martin Evans and organised by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Linnean Society of London, Thursday 31 October 2013


The chance to watch a lecture from a Nobel laureate is always exciting. Throw in a couple of scientific societies that clock up over 400 years of history between them, and you can practically feel the prestige dripping from the ceiling.

So it was last week when the Royal Society of Medicine and the Linnean Society of London hosted the annual Darwin Lecture. The speaker: Professor Sir Martin Evans, stem cell expert extraordinaire, and one of the (conceptual, human) parents of the knockout mouse.

This is a really big deal. The genetic modification technologies developed in part by this man, along with subsequent related technologies, have immeasurably changed the face of biological and medical research. I was very excited.

The lecture started well, with a re-telling of the history of embryonic stem cell discovery – in which Professor Evans played no small role, being among the first to culture such cells – and how they added to our understanding of developmental biology. We heard the story of how he, among others, developed the technology to genetically alter such stem cells, for which they later received the Nobel Prize.

These are the bits of lectures from pre-eminent scientists I love: the personal stories (with the personalities behind them), the unheard mistakes and accidental discoveries, the photos of old colleagues and lab-book scans from yesteryear. These little glimpses behind the curtain are rare, and I was not disappointed in getting them this night.

Sadly, the good professor became a victim of his own success. A long and prolific scientific career has blessed him with a large reservoir of data; unfortunately this night the dam burst. In a complaint I rarely make, the talk took a turn for the technical, as he scrolled through a selection of slides from across the decades, listing some of the various genes and diseases his lab has worked on.

It is in no doubt that Professor Evans is a titan in his field, and everything a scientist should be: widely knowledgeable, infectiously enthusiastic and modest despite tremendous achievements. I so wanted to enjoy this lecture, but the information tsunami was too much; I could not.

There was also the little matter of the Death by PowerPoint. I tried to be lenient; I appreciate that he's probably spent most of his career using actual slides or overhead projectors. What does a little presentation matter? Sadly, there was only so much I could take; what the clip-art started, the comic sans finished.

Sir Evans has spent his career working on mouse stem cells and how to modify them in order to study disease. He's been incredibly successful. Now, science has begun to use such knowledge to develop new cellular therapies, which could be used to treat a swathe of currently intractable and incurable diseases.

Frankly, he could give the worst lecture ever and I still wouldn't mind. His legacy is far greater.

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