At the age of 79, one of the creators of the world’s first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, passed away.
At the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Prof. Sir Ian Wilmut established the groundwork for stem cell research.
This technology seeks to treat many age-related diseases by allowing the body to regenerate damaged tissue.
His legacy is the creation of the discipline of regenerative medicine, which has enormous potential to help more people live longer, healthier lives.
Dolly’s conception in 1996 was arguably one of the 20th century’s greatest scientific achievements.
Prof Wilmut was one of the leaders of a team that used a cell from the mammary gland of a deceased adult ewe to create a genetically identical living animal.
How he accomplished it
The procedure entailed placing adult cell DNA into an empty sheep’s egg. The researchers then stimulated it with electricity and added chemicals, which resulted in the adult DNA regenerating into an embryo. The embryo was then implanted in a surrogate ewe until it gave birth.
There are times when scientific advancements represent much more than a mere increase in knowledge. On occasion, they alter everything. Observing the Earth from space and the detonation of atomic weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused major shifts in our cultural perspective of ourselves and the world around us. The birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, felt like one of these iterations at the epoch.
Dolly’s arrival more than 25 years ago, cloned from an adult sheep’s cell, inspired both elation and apprehension. It was a remarkable scientific accomplishment.
Human cloning is unethical
Fears that humans would be cloned next initially overshadowed the message that Dolly was created to develop novel medical treatments.
Bill Clinton, the then-president of the United States, reflected public sentiment when, amid great fanfare, he swiftly proclaimed a ban on human cloning experiments.
“[The technology] has the potential to threaten the sacred family bonds at the very core of our ideals and society,” he said.
When I encountered Dolly’s creator, however, it was evident that he was not Dr. Frankenstein. Being a mild and modest person, he was ill at ease in the international spotlight.
But despite his discomfort, he felt compelled to clarify that Dolly was created for the benefit of humanity, not to replace it. He told me that his greatest aspiration was to discover treatments for debilitating diseases.
Brain and muscle tissue that could be transplanted into patients could be grown using the same technology used to construct Dolly.
Prof. Wilmut showed me Dolly’s lab once the news had settled.
He explained that his goal was to revert a cell from a patient with, say, Parkinson’s disease, to its embryonic state. Instead of allowing it to develop into a clone of the patient, the embryonic stem cell could be coaxed into becoming nerve cells that could replace the damaged portions of his brain.
The controversial use of human embryonic material led to the prohibition of so-called therapeutic cloning research in many countries, including several U.S. states. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (IPS) are cells that behave similarly to embryonic stem cells without the use of cloning. This discovery was made by Japanese scientists many years after the birth of Dolly.
Using IPS, scientists from around the globe have successfully grown a diverse array of cells. Before starting clinical studies on patients, the cells are carefully tested for safety and efficacy.
Dolly’s birth was not the paradigm-shifting event that many at the time hoped for or dreaded it would be. There have been no supersoldier clones, resurrected loved ones, or miraculous cures yet.
However, Prof. Wilmut’s invention, Dolly the cloned sheep, remains a scientific icon, representing an exceptional scientific achievement by Roslin researchers. The team initiated a revolution in medical research that will ultimately keep more people healthier for longer.