THE creator of Dolly the Sheep has predicted the cloning of the mammal will lead to new drug treatments for inherited conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease.
Professor Sir Ian Wilmut said researchers now were using the information gained from the cloning process to “search hard” for possible treatments for degenerative illnesses.
The scientist, who led the team at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh which created the world’s first cloned mammal from an adult cell, said this would be a major advance – but cautioned it would be unlikely to be widely available for at least a decade.
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Wilmut will be one of the keynote speakers at a major conference being held in London on Wednesday by the Progress Educational Trust (PET), which will gather leading experts in science, medicine, policy and ethics to discuss the latest developments in embryo research and genome editing.
Speaking to the Sunday Herald ahead of the event, he said that while cloning itself had only had limited application, the success of Dolly’s creation had altered the way biologists think “radically and swiftly”.
Until then it had been thought that once a cell had become specialised for a particular function – such as skin - it could not be changed.
But the birth of Dolly 20 years ago demonstrated it was possible to “turn the clock back” and make a “differentiated” cell behave as if it was a recently fertilised egg.
This knowledge was used by researchers in Japan to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells – called “induced pluripotent stem cells” – from skin cells.
Wilmut, who is Professor Emeritus of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said these could be key to finding treatments for inherited conditions for which there is currently no effective treatment, such as motor neurone and Parkinson’s diseases.
He said: “You could turn the pluripotent cells into the nerve cells which are damaged in the disease.
“You could compare those [damaged] cells with the equivalent cells from the healthy person and perhaps for the first time be able to understand what has gone wrong in the patient.
“That information can then be used to look for drugs which prevent the abnormal change.”
He added: “This is going on - people are searching hard at the present time in relation to those two diseases.
“One day they will come up with drugs – it is not a cure for the disease, it just stops or slows down the rate of degeneration.
“But even so, there is no really effective treatment for either motor neurone disease or Parkinson’s at the present time, so is potentially a major advance.
“The disappointing thing for anyone who has the disease it that is probably a decade or more away, partly because of the amount of testing that has to be done.”
One of the main issues which will be discussed at the conference include the current 14-day rule, which means human embryos can only be developed in the laboratory up to 13 days after they were created.
In the UK this legislation has been in place since 1990 - however scientists had never managed to develop embryos beyond seven days.
But the issue is now in the spotlight after Cambridge University scientist Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz developed human embryos for 13 days, the longest ever achieved.