Few celebrities have so captivated the world's media. She posed for People magazine, and "even caught the eye of Bill Clinton". But this "global superstar" was "no ordinary diva" - she was a sheep. Dolly was born on 5 July 1996, the first mammal cloned using an adult cell, taken from the mammary gland of an old ewe, hence the "affectionate tribute to the buxom American singer". Apparently, Dolly Parton was not offended. As her agent said, "There's no such thing as baa-aa-aad publicity."
Ian Wilmut, who led the research team that created Dolly at the Roslin Institute, admits to being shocked both by the scale and the hostility of the media response for this "reproduction without the act of sex". The New York Times headline was typical: "Cloning Discovery Has Unleashed a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing".
The role of men suddenly seemed vulnerable. "I think the human male is unnecessary," said Lord Winston. Predictably, Wilmut found himself compared to Frankenstein, the literary archetype of scientific hubris. "I expected Dolly's birth to be celebrated," says Wilmut, still bruised a decade later. In fact, this modest scientist makes an unlikely Frankenstein. He and his colleagues were driven by "pure curiosity". They were searching for methods of nuclear transfer in sheep that would allow them genetically to alter farmyard animals to make them healthier and more productive.
Now Wilmut has turned to human stem-cell research, "the stuff of which medical dreams are made". Although "passionately opposed to cloning babies", he is excited by the potential of therapeutic cloning and predicts that cloned embryos from patients will enable conditions such as heart disease and Alzheimer's to be treated. "The potential of cloning to alleviate suffering... is so great in the medium term that I believe it would be immoral not to clone human embryos for this purpose." Combined with genetic engineering, these techniques will also help eradicate hereditary diseases such as Huntington's.
In an understated, very English way, Wilmut is a scientific visionary. He argues passionately and persuasively against the "right-wing religious paranoia" that threatens to prevent future generations benefiting from these powerful new technologies.
Ably co-authored by Roger Highfield, After Dolly offers a fascinating insight into one of the most controversial yet promising areas of modern biology.Reuse content