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Professor Sir Ian Wilmut in conversation with Dr Roger Highfield

16 January 2017
Appeared in BioNews 884

The third session of the Progress Educational Trust conference 'Rethinking the Ethics of Embryo Research: Genome Editing, 14 Days and Beyond' featured Professor Sir Ian Wilmut in conversation with Dr Roger Highfield, former Telegraph science editor and now Director of External Affairs for the Science Museum Group.

Anyone who knows anything about cloning will know Professor Wilmut led the team who created Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell – that is, the first adult clone. Highfield and Professor Wilmut are no strangers. Together, they co-authored a book, 'After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning' (2006), which considered ensuing scientific and policy issues since the beginning of mammalian cloning technology, including stem cell research. From their conversation here, it was also evident that their paths had crossed at press briefings and the like since Dolly's birth.

Highfield started the conversation by asking Professor Wilmut to give the audience a 'flavour' of his personal experience when Dolly's story broke, particularly in the context of the newspaper coverage. The news of Dolly's birth – which had in fact happened the previous year – was published on Saturday 22 February 1997.  As Highfield noted, Fleet Street journalists had already been excitedly holding onto the story for a week under the embargo imposed by Nature, which published the official research on 27 February. Yet Professor Wilmut's abiding memory of that weekend was of receiving many phone calls from time zones across the world, asking him: 'Is it true?' The embargo had been broken by someone! (1)

Professor Wilmut went on to describe a whirlwind of media and scientific attention lasting for several months. Originally he'd thought it would be okay for his wife and himself to take a holiday over the upcoming Easter break: 'It wasn't'. He added, 'It didn't go away – it'll never go away.' It was that moment that I realised what a burden being the author of a major scientific development could be, alongside the critical acclaim and – in the words of the people at this conference, at least – the 'fame'. That said, if I didn't know who he was, he could be any mild-mannered, softly-spoken man – and that was part of the charm of this session.

In the year prior to Dolly, two other lambs had been cloned at the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh by Professor Wilmut and his team – twins Megan and Morag. Although a similar process of cell nuclear transfer was used to produce them, they were cloned from embryonic cells, rather than adult. Referring back to their birth, Highfield reflected that Professor Wilmut and his team had thought that this was 'very significant', but it got nowhere near the media attention that Dolly's birth did (though their announcement did coincide with the news of the Dunblane shootings). Dolly was seen as the 'real' development – leading inevitably to misreporting and hyperbolic speculation. Highfield spoke about the initial 'brouhaha' and its focus on human reproductive cloning (prohibited by law in the UK since 2001) (2), drawing on the spectre of cloned human beings and dictators in particular. He described 'lots of bonkers coverage' at the time and 'a few potty cults' interested in human cloning – adding that it 'all died out'.

In fact, as the pair went on to discuss, the cloning experiments of the Roslin team were part of a wider project on the genetic modification of animals. Professor Wilmut explained that they had been looking at gene transfer in sheep since the 1980s to make human proteins in sheep milk, trying to trace whether the genes introduced would be inherited. The biggest hurdle at the time was that scientists could 'only add genes, not take them away'. So, they started cloning in order to grow cells and make genetic changes, and take research from there.

Obviously, on a scientific timescale, Dolly's birth was a long time ago. Highfield asked Professor Wilmut when he realised that cloning – while a scientific breakthrough and one that had led to many other major developments – wasn't 'the way forward', and that iPS cells were. The answer was simple, humble and deferential: 'When I heard [Dr Shinya] Yamanaka speak'. He added: 'It was one of those life changing papers'. Dr Yamanaka was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on stem cells in 2012 (3), and Professor Wilmut obviously has a lot of respect for his peers and their work. In response to a later question about the 'revolution' in gene sequencing – costing billions – he answered that such work was transforming science and medicine and was 'clearly revolutionary'.

From here, Professor Wilmut went back to speak about cloning, modestly describing the biggest impact of his procedure as being in livestock – for example the use of cloning to introduce genetic changes, such as to produce a cystic fibrosis disease model in pigs. But he did concede that his work had 'made biologists think differently… cells aren't fixed… are there different ways of reprogramming?'

The other difference, highlighted by a question from the audience on whether there will be 'any chance of having a proper debate on the 14-day rule in embryo research', is the way media worked then, compared to now. As Fiona Fox, Chair of the Progress Educational Trust and chief executive of the Science Media Centre, pointed out from the audience: 'That was back in the day when scientists didn't grab the agenda. We're in different times.' Megan, Morag and Dolly happened when widespread use of the Internet was in its infancy (as seen from online newspages from that time, and remembered by me from writing up follow-up stories in BioNews back then!) (4). As Highfield pointed out, given Trump, Brexit and the like, 'it's hard to tell what the public is thinking'. He added that without the impact Dolly's story generated, everything might have happened differently. In a way, the sensationalism helped the science 'reach the parts of the public that a measured 2000-word article would not have done'.

All that said, Professor Wilmut has not stopped by any means, as Highfield pointed out – he is now working on the creation of iPS cell banks. Professor Wilmut explained they were looking to 'provide the best quality iPS cells for larger numbers of people'. They started with patient-specific cells, 'but that means loads of stem cell lines in even a small country like the UK'. So, the idea is to 'carefully select' approximately 154 cell lines that would 'provide a useful match for more than 90 per cent of the population'. This sounded pretty ambitious and almost basically 'practical' to me, until he added 'there isn't really a reason why we couldn't do that for the whole population of the world'. And that was when the possibilities created by the ongoing work of this quiet, modest man blew me away all over again.

PET would like to thank the sponsors of its conference - Merck, the Anne McLaren Memorial Trust Fund, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, the London Women's Clinic, the Medical Research Council and Caribou Biosciences.

1) Dolly at 20: The inside story on the world’s most famous sheep
Nature News |  29 June 2016
2) Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008: Section 3
The National Archives |  2008
3) Professors Gurdon and Yamanaka awarded Nobel Prize for work on stem cells
BioNews |  8 October 2012
4) Spring lambs for Dolly
BioNews |  5 April 1999
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