BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 1 April 2014
Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili
In this week's episode of The Life Scientific, presenter (and physicist) Professor Jim Al-Khalili interviews the recently retired geneticist and discoverer of the PAX6 gene, Professor Veronica van Heyningen.
We learn of her passion for her research in eye development, as she quotes Darwin's description of the complex and precise organ as being one of 'extreme perfection'. Of equal importance, and often what makes the interview format most absorbing, we learn of her origins, background and early years, wrapped up as it was with the conflicts of twentieth century Europe.
Discussing her work in the late 80s, Professor van Heyningen explains her decision to study the eye condition, Aniridia, which is characterised by the absence or reduction of the iris. Aniridia is seemingly passed down through families and Professor van Heyningen's work on the condition led to the identification of the PAX6 gene as a master control gene for eye development and growth.
Professor van Heyningen summarises that it is in gaining an understanding of how things go wrong that provides an insight into the many processes of development, adding that it is amazing 'not that they sometimes go wrong, but that they ever work'. PAX6 is the 'site manager', she explains, acting early in development and controlling the expression of many other genes (including itself). Therefore, a lot can go wrong.
Her first 11 years were spent with her Jewish mother and father in her country of birth, Hungary. Her parents, who had experienced the full horror of Nazi-occupied Europe in Auschwitz and the labour camp, Mauthausen, were married after the war. Veronica was born in 1946, with her sister being born in the years following. She describes her parents as 'cultured', her father as 'well-educated' – he was a successful textile engineer, though it was her mother who was the true driving force for their escape of Soviet-occupied Hungary for the UK.
Starting secondary school in this country, a young Professor van Heyningen was exposed to excellent biology and chemistry teachers. This, and her father's belief that a career in science would be a stable and practical one, and sadly, be transferable if they were forced to move once more, helped steer her into a career in research. At her interview for naturalisation for British Citizenship, Professor van Heyningen told the interviewers of her high academic expectations and that it was her intention to go to Cambridge for her studies. This she succeeded in doing, before heading to University of Oxford for her PhD and then on to the Medical Research Council's Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
One of the intriguing aspects of Professor van Heyningen's career is her involvement in the ethical side of genetics through the Human Genetics Commission. Her desire to engage with public debate is admirable and her colleagues are quick to praise her boldness and willingness to comment on difficult issues (which often others would shy away from). An example she herself mentions is the gene therapy versus embryo selection argument. To choose an embryo that would not be, for example, a cystic fibrosis sufferer (or even carrier), would be, in her opinion, a vastly better option when gene therapies become viable in the future.
Perhaps Professor Al-Khalili's most important question of the interview was whether scientists play god. This question was put in the context of a group in Switzerland working on PAX6 in fruit flies around the time of her research, where they found the gene could be expressed all over the body of these flies (not just in the brain and eye) resulting in the raspberry-like structures on the legs, wings and other areas. This is a pertinent question for the field of genetics, where animals are used in experiments and the implications for humans are huge. Without missing a beat, Professor van Heyningen's response comes that such experiments are needed to 'understand the sequence of events and the potency of genes'.
This was an interview with an obviously fascinating and dedicated woman.