Eureka!:The Science Column;Interview;Ian Wilmut

16th January 1998 at 00:00
Last month a sheep was celebrated as the scientific breakthrough of 1997. Ian Wilmut, embryologist and leader of the team that cloned Dolly, talks about his work.

We could be more scientifically aware as a nation. I find it distressing to have to explain to people who have just lost a child that they can't get their child back. If you did mwake a copy, it would be a genetically identical copy of the person as a newborn baby. That child would grow up with a quite different personality. So you can't deliver what these people desperately want.

It was chance that led me into research. I wrote round to labs and finally found one, the Agricultural Research Council unit in Cambridge, that would give me a holiday job. As well as routine chores, like carrying the pigs around, they taught me things. I worked with eggs and sperm for the first time.

My PhD was in freezing semen to see if it could be stored. Then I worked freezing embryos, and I was part of the group that produced the first calf from a frozen embryo. When I came here (the Animal Breeding Research Station in Roslin near Edinburgh) 25 years ago, my interest was in trying to reduce the number of embryos that die after fertilisation. Then I moved into animal genetics.

With the cloning, or nuclear transfer, technology that produced Dolly, we expect to be able to make targeted changes in genes. In the next 50 years the human genome projects are going to identify new genes, and scientists will say, "OK, we've got a gene. What does it do?" And what we will offer is a tool for, say, switching that gene off so you can see what effect that has. An example is cystic fibrosis, which reflects the lack of normal function of one gene. By studying that gene, we would hope to contribute to better treatment.

I'm grateful for all the interest in Dolly, but I'm disappointed that, a year later, there's still an imbalance in the general perception. The scary scenarios are over-emphasised, and there isn't enough effort put into understanding and explaining the potential opportunities.

About 160,000 people in the developed world die each year before an organ becomes available for transplant. The question is, can you find a way of changing pigs so that their organs can be put into human patients? This means deliberately making animals ill. To some people, that is unacceptable.

I don't think it should be up to people like me to make that choice. It should be a social choice, perhaps made by an ethics committee.

Not everything about science is useful, but there is too much demonisation. It runs all the way through society, through the media, through the Government - which has cut back on support for research - as well as schools.

The number of students seeking to do science has fallen in the past 20 years. The status of scientists has gone down. That's partly the fault of government - we went through a time when we gave the greatest status to City people making lots of money. For our part, we are planning to create a centre which school parties can visit to see the animals and discuss the work we're doing.

Interview by Caroline Rees. "Eureka: the Science Column" will appear every fortnight.

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