Ian Wilmut (born 1944) was a quiet unassuming British embryologist who worked to improve the productivity of farm animals. By February 1997, he had shocked the scientific community by successfully cloning the first mammal from the DNA of an adult. By doing so, Wilmut had placed himself at the center of an ethical controversy regarding the issue of cloning.
Ian Wilmut was born in Hampton Lucey, England, near Warwick on July 7, 1944. His father, David Wilmut, was a math teacher. Wilmut described himself as a pretty average student. He chose to study farming at the University of Nottingham because he wanted to work outdoors. There he discovered that he had no aptitude for the business aspect of commercial farming. Instead, he became interested in research.
At Darwin College, Cambridge University, Wilmut met researcher Chris Porge who had discovered how to freeze cells in 1949. Wilmut became fascinated with the research. His father had a severe case of diabetes that caused blindness for the last thirty years of his life. This disease may have been another factor that led Wilmut to develop an interest in this field. He reasoned that genetic engineering might have helped his father. Wilmut met G. Eric Lamming, a world famous expert in reproductive science, who became his mentor. He obtained his doctoral degree in 1973 from Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation dealt with the freezing of boar semen and embryos. Based on this research, Wilmut was able to successfully produce the first calf born from a frozen embryo, a Hereford-Friesian named Frostie. Using this process, cattle breeders were able to increase the quality of their herd by implanting the embryos of the cows that produced the best meat and milk into cows of inferior quality. Therefore, more high quality animals could be born.
Upon graduation from Cambridge, Wilmut took a research job with the Animal Breeding Research Station in Scotland. This was both a government and privately financed institution that soon became the Roslin Institute in Roslin, Scotland. At a scientific meeting in Ireland, Wilmut overheard a conversation about an experiment by Danish embryologist, Dr. Steen M. Willadsen of Grenada Genetics in Texas. Dr. Willadsen had used a cell from an embryo already in development to clone a sheep. This convinced him that cloning large farm animals was possible. He began applying his research findings when he returned to Scotland. Wilmut spent many years in experimentation. It never occurred to him to give up, even though most biologists thought that cloning a mammal was science fiction fantasy. When animal activists heard about his research in 1991, they burned down his laboratories. Wilmut was not deterred. He obtained funding from a drug company called Pharmaceutical Proteins, Ltd. (PPL) Therapeutics and continued his experiments. Only four scientists were allowed to know exactly what was being done.
In January 1996, Wilmut began the cloning procedure. He took the DNA of a six-year-old Finn Dorset ewe's mammary gland, switched off its active genes, and fused it with an egg cell from a Scottish Blackface ewe from which he had removed the genetic material. He used electricity to fuse that mammary cell with its own DNA to the empty egg while it was in a dormant state. He repeated the process with 277 udder cells and eggs from sheep. Only 29 of the eggs actually began to grow and divide into embryos. Wilmut transferred the 29 embryos into surrogate mother sheep. Thirteen became pregnant. Only one ewe delivered a healthy lamb. On July 5, 1996, the lamb was born at the Roslin Institute. DNA tests proved that she was a clone of the six-year-old ewe. Wilmut named the lamb "Dolly" after Dolly Parton, the country singer with exceptional mammary glands. He waited until February 1997, before introducing Dolly to the world in order to make sure she was developing normally and that the patent for the process was properly registered. He explained that the DNA from both cells had to be synchronized at exactly the right stage of development in the cell cycle to produce a live animal.
No other scientists were yet able to replicate Wilmut's experiment of creating a sheep from the adult cell of another sheep. Scientists believe that it is only a matter of time before the experiment is duplicated. Additional DNA testing still pointed to the assessment that she is the replica her mother. When Andrew Collier of The Scotsman met Dolly, he expected a dull curiosity from a lab bench. Instead, he found a delightful, lively animal, bursting with personality. Raised from birth with human handling, she bounded over, jumped up, and pushed his hand with her head, demanding to be petted. Dolly has delivered four perfectly healthy offspring which show no developmental abnormalities.
After cloning Dolly, Wilmut went on to produce Molly and Polly, who had real commercial value. They were each cloned with a human gene that allowed their milk to contain a blood clotting protein factor IX, which could be extracted to treat human hemophilia. Eventually, herds of sheep with genetic proteins in their milk could be produced, turning them into living drug factories for other diseases as well. Wilmut hoped that technology could be used with pigs to create human-adaptable organs for transplants. Several thousand people a year die because they cannot get a transplant. If a particular sugar molecule on the outside of pig cells can be modified, perhaps they will become a good source of replacement organs for humans. He also envisioned that certain genes could be more easily isolated and modified. For instance, if the genes that make cattle susceptible to mad-cow disease could be altered, perhaps another disaster could be prevented in the British cattle industry. The possibilities for good are endless.
Wilmut did not envision the storm of controversy his work would cause. When he announced the successful cloning, he told Youssef M. Ibrahim in a New York Times, interview, "Our technology permits a change of the organs in animals, so they are less threatening for the human immunology." Meanwhile, the rest of the world was imagining that if sheep could be cloned, man would be next. According to Gina Kolata in The New York Times, Dr. Wilmut never intended to clone human beings and considered the possibility ethically unacceptable. At a March 1997, U.S. Senate public health and safety subcommittee hearing to discuss the scientific and ethical implication of his work, Wilmut said, "I know what is bothering people about all this. I understand why the world is suddenly at my door. But this is my work. It has always been my work, and it doesn't have anything to do with creating copies of human beings. I am not haunted by what I do, if that's what you want to know. I sleep very well at night." In an interview with Andrew Ross in Salon, Wilmut said, "One thing I would say is that history shows that people are very bad at predicting the way that technology will be used. There are real potential benefits, and it's important that the concern to prevent misuse doesn't also prevent the really useful benefits that can be gained from this research."
By 1999, Wilmut lobbied for a change in the 1990 Human Fertilization and Embryology Act in Great Britain to allow the use of surplus eggs from assisted fertilization treatments to be developed for fourteen days. Stem cells, or parent cells with the power to grow into all other cells of the body, would then be obtained before the embryos were destroyed. These cells could be used to develop therapeutic treatments for diseased or damaged tissues or organs. Parkinson 's disease and Alzheimers's disease could be studied and perhaps arrested. Daughters might donate their eggs, which could then be developed into a short-lived embryonic clone of the sick parent. The new healthy cells could be transferred into the parent, thus curing the disease.
Even though Wilmut is not religious, he sits on a Church of Scotland committee that examines ethical issues raised by advances in science and technology at monthly meetings. His intent is to defuse the critics so that his work can continue. When he appears at public seminars, he is sometimes met with public protests and bomb threats. At every event he stresses the possible therapeutic benefits of cloning techniques. A balding, bearded man, Wilmut is married to Vivian, and has three grown children, Helen, Naomi, and Dean. He would rather walk in the mountains of Scotland, practice curling, or sip single-malt Scottish whisky than be at the center of controversy.
After being the center of attention for two years, Wilmut and his colleagues Keith Campbell and science writer Colin Tudge produced a book detailing their work and the resulting experiences. They titled it The Second Creation: The Age of Biological Control by the Scientists Who Cloned Dolly. The authors discuss a number of their concerns in the book. In Second Creation, Wilmut writes that "Human cloning has grabbed people's imagination, but that is merely a diversion and one we personally regret and find distasteful. We did not make Dolly for that. Still less did we intend to produce vast flocks of identical sheep." Ethical concerns about cloning and the speed at which genetic research is being developed, insure that Wilmut will remain in the public eye for the foreseeable future.
Newsmakers 1997, Issue 4, Gale Group, 1997.
American Enterprise, September-October, 1998, pp. 57-58.
Irish Times, January 15, 2000.
Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1997.
Maclean's March 10, 1997, pp. 54-58.
Nation, March 24, 1997, pp. 4-5.
New York Times, February 24, 1997.
Scotsman, December 24, 1997; February 18, 1998; May 17, 1999; January 20, 1999; January 18, 2000.
Time, March 10, 1997, p. 62-64; December 29, 1997, pp. 98-99;March 2, 1998, p. 65; March 29, 1999, p. 176.
UNESCO Courier, September, 1999, p. 32-33.
U.S. News and World Report, March 10, 1997, pp. 59-63. □