Professor Keith Campbell: Biologist who played a leading role in cloning Dolly the sheep
Cloned from a mammary gland cell, the sheep was named in honour of Dolly Parton
Belfast-born David McKittrick has been reporting on Northern Ireland since 1971, He has written for the East Antrim Times, the Irish Times and was The Independent's Irish correspondent for many years. He is the author of several books including Making Sense of the Troubles (2000) and Lost Lives (1999).
Saturday 13 October 2012
Keith Campbell was a one-time medical technician who, after decades exploring the possibilities of cloning, was to the fore in the creation of the world-famous Dolly the sheep. Dolly's emergence in the mid-1990s was hailed as one of the most fascinating and striking scientific breakthroughs for decades. In creating a sensation, it also produced anxieties – as yet unrealised – that it might open the door to a nightmare future of human clones.
The United Nations called on its members to ban human cloning in all its forms while bans were introduced in Canada and Australia and a number of American states. Campbell himself made it clear that he strongly disapproved of human cloning, though he continued with work involving cattle, horses, dogs and other animals.
Dolly the sheep captured the imagination of a generation, her attraction enhanced by her harmless appearance and by the fact that she was named after the voluptuous country and western singer Dolly Parton. One of Campbell's associates explained the unscientific origin of the sheep's name: "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell," he said, "and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's." Campbell revealed that his team, which was based at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, had concentrated on experimenting with sheep "because sheep in Scotland are very, very, very cheap."
He was interested in animals from an early age: it was said of him that as a boy he "used to fill his mother's kitchen with frogs". He was born and brought up in Birmingham, his family later moving to Perth in Scotland, where he developed a love of the outdoors, hill-walking and mountain-biking.
On leaving school he became a medical technician but left for the University of London, where he took a degree in microbiology. A spell working in Yemen was followed by work in Sussex researching the eradication of Dutch elm disease. He went on to the Marie Curie Institute, where he became absorbed in cellular growth, before returning to education to take a doctorate at the University of Sussex.
At Roslin one of the key achievements of his team was the development of a method of unlocking the genetic blueprint carried in individual cells, so that a living animal could be reconstructed from a single cell. Campbell wrote later: "At this time it was known that the majority of cells within an adult contain an intact genome; however, many scientists were sceptical that the nuclei of such cells could be reprogrammed to control development. Stubbornly, I always believed that such technology was possible."
A year before Dolly was born, the Roslin team cloned two sheep, which they named Megan and Morag, in the laboratory from embryonic cells. But although this was a major breakthrough, it excited curiously little public interest. The business of producing Dolly began with the removal of more than 400 eggs from ewes and filling them with cells from an udder. But only one developed successfully. This was Dolly, who was born on 5 July 1996. When her existence was revealed some months later the level of interest was sensational and she instantly became the world's most famous sheep.
The initial explosion of attention was followed by a wave of moral and ethical debate on the wisdom of following a path which might lead to the cloning of humans. Campbell dismissed such speculation as unrealistic. "There are groups that believe that life begins at conception and that you should not do any research involving embryos at all," he once said. But he added that once the potential benefits were understood his techniques would meet with more approval.
He argued that this line of research would lead to important health advances in areas such as age-related diseases and the development of new therapies for both humans and animals. It could lead, he said, to preserving the genetics of endangered species, for example. In 1999 he left Roslin to become professor of animal development at Nottingham University, where he continued his cloning research. In the years that followed his collaborator, Ian Wilmut, received a knighthood which some scientists protested should have gone Campbell. Wilmut himself acknowledged that he had played a lesser role than Campbell, who he said "deserves 66 per cent of the credit for Dolly."
Professor David Greenaway, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham University, paid tribute. "Keith was a brilliant scientist," he said. "His work was genuinely transformational and inspirational, his pioneering research was revolutionary."
Dolly went on to give birth to four lambs, though her death at the age of six, an early age for sheep, gave rise to speculation that cloning could result in a reduced life expectancy. Her death was however attributed to a progressive lung disease. Her preserved body was placed on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
In 2008 Campbell shared the Shaw Prize for medicine and life sciences, which was worth $1 million. The award has a motto particularly appropriate for Campbell – "Grasp the law of nature and make use of it."
Professor Keith Campbell, biologist: Professor of Animal Development, Nottingham University 1999-; born Birmingham 23 May 1954; married Kathryn; two daughters; died 5 October 2012.
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