In 1997, the news of the birth of Dolly the sheep stirred up a mild debate in my family.
I, then in fifth grade, could not understand why the birth of a sheep (no matter how it was born) would cause humans to worry: whether this would be good or bad for mankind. Finally, my uncle (a doctor at Institute 108) concluded: “Asexual reproduction is like an equation with many solutions. Good or bad depends on human intentions.”
Two days ago, the “father” of Dolly, precisely the head of this sheep cloning research project – scientist Ian Wilmut, passed away. Two events 26 years apart still attract special attention from researchers.
The birth of Dolly the sheep was one of the three biggest events in the world in 1997 (alongside the death of Princess Diana and the return of Hong Kong to China). The press described it as “shocking” news, calling Dolly “a step too far for science” and warning that “human cloning is imminent.”
The debate erupted fiercely because from many perspectives such as ethics, religion, society, medical ethics… Dolly the sheep should not exist in this world. The public and even scientists took sides, judged and imposed personal thoughts on one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical research in the last century. Meanwhile, the practical value that Ian Wilmut’s research team wanted to “show all” was the ambition to treat many age-related diseases by allowing the body to regenerate damaged tissues. The work of his research team laid the foundation and promoted the development of stem cell research – an important part of regenerative medicine today.
At that time, before fierce attacks, Keith Campbell – Wilmut’s colleague – who was even considered to be Dolly’s real father, was firm: Human cloning should never be allowed. He believed that this imagined scenario was “an insult”, due to both the risk of deformity and the fact that a copy would never be accepted as a real person.
Scientists have since cloned mice, goats, pigs, cows, rabbits… although the cost is still high and cloned animals still have a high rate of premature death or suffer from diseases and deformities… In 2012, The Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka and John B. Gurdon (British) for their work on reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent stem cells. Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka shared that Dolly’s cloning was the inspiration that pushed him to start developing stem cells derived from adult cells.
Research on cloning and stem cells has been promoted in basic science in many countries around the world. However, practical medical achievements applied to treatment are still facing many limitations.
Ian Wilmut was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he got older – a disease that was once hoped to be treatable thanks to scientific achievements starting from Dolly’s cloning. Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s and affects more than 8.5 million people worldwide.
Wilmut did not live long enough to enjoy medical achievements that could improve life quality for those with uncontrollable movements caused by this disease.
In his obituary, The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh – where Wilmut worked for decades – said he died from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
In general science and medicine in particular, from basic research to practical application is a long and arduous journey. But without deep research courageously or daringly stepping into new “lands”, how can we discover human potential fully or create scientific miracles.”
Mai Đức Dũng
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Dolly the Sheep