Lord of all hopefulness

A medical genius who has brought joy to thousands, or a sinister egotist tinkering with the forces of nature? Who is the real Lord Winston?
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The Independent Online

Where to start with Lord Winston? A medical egotist who has protested so much about playing God that some people believe he protests too much? One of the fathers of in vitro fertilisation, deliverer of thousands of babies to desperately grateful couples? A slippery moralist mistrusted by the pro-life lobby? Or a genius bringing life where there was none before?

Where to start with Lord Winston? A medical egotist who has protested so much about playing God that some people believe he protests too much? One of the fathers of in vitro fertilisation, deliverer of thousands of babies to desperately grateful couples? A slippery moralist mistrusted by the pro-life lobby? Or a genius bringing life where there was none before?

Professor Robert Winston is head of reproductive medicine at Hammersmith hospital in London. He is also a life peer who takes the Labour whip, but to most people he is the charismatic presenter of such programmes as the BBC's Making Babies and Superhuman.

He is the author of several landmark books and more than 300 papers on reproductive medicine, eugenics, designer babies, in vitro fertilisation and the pre-diagnosis of genetic disorders in embryos before re-implantation - the testing for defects in test-tube babies.

As such, he has attained a god-like status among the infertile and attracted the opprobrium of those who, quite simply, don't like him messing about with embryos.

A heavyweight then. Self-obsessed, too, if you believe what's written about him. And a man bent under the weight of onerous moral dilemmas. So it is perhaps surprising when he breezes into his favourite kosher restaurant, Six-13 in Wigmore Street, central London, orders steak and chips and gushes about the thrill he has just had meeting one of the first "test-tube babies" he and his team created 18 years ago.

"Lovely, a delight," he says. "Her name is Amanda and she came to lunch with me at the House of Lords with a friend of hers. I'd met her once before when she was nine, and here she is nine years later, a young woman. She knows where she came from and fully understands it. It isn't a stigma any more. It seems perfectly natural now. Her parents must be very proud of her."

To Lord Winston, this is what it's all about. He bats away moral questions with practised ease, then tells you why he does what he does, why he gives hope to childless couples who previously had none. To him, family is everything, so why shouldn't everybody have one? "I am not saying it is everyone's right - you cannot have a right that is not enforceable, that is not related to the governance of society."

He is animated now. He was born 60 years ago, but he is young looking, with a shock of wiry hair and his trademark Groucho Marx moustache. His suit may be dowdy, but his mannerisms make up for it. Even with an audience of one he never tires of explaining the issues and, for a man with such a heavyweight reputation, he has a ready smile and wicked laugh. He is having fun.

"However, I think every couple has a right to have a disease treated, on an equal basis... and infertility is a symptom of a disease. To some people, being infertile is one of the most corrosive things in their lives. Some come to terms with it and some don't, but it can be like having chronic pain, and that is something worth treating."

Lord Winston, an Orthodox Jew, was born in north London. His father, a diamond craftsman, died when the boy Robert was just nine. His grandfather, a rabbi, and mother - Ruth Winston-Fox, who went on to become active in local politics and charity work - were the great influences in his early life.

Young Robert went to Selcombe Primary School in Southgate, north London, before winning a scholarship to Colet Court Preparatory School in west London, the junior school of St Paul's. Although sometimes wilful, his results were consistently excellent and, after graduating in medicine from Cambridge, he studied at the London Hospital for three years before leaving for a time to experiment with theatre directing. "I came to my senses and went back into medicine," he says, though the spell clearly influenced his desire - and talent for - performance in later life.

A distinguished career in reproductive medicine followed. He pioneered methods of repairing Fallopian tubes using microsurgery. He was the first to create test-tube quads, although now he will implant no more than two embryos at a time. And he was first to perfect the technique by which the sex of an embryo could be identified so that those with certain genetic diseases, particular to only one sex, could be discarded.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Some argue that the destruction of embryos amounts to the destruction of human life; others say discarding an embryo because of its sex - even though it would have developed crippling genetic diseases - is the first step on the road to designer babies.

Lord Winston is quick to defend himself. "It is a difficult argument, but we pioneered a method of testing for genetic diseases before implanting embryos so that couples who had a sick child could prevent their next baby from inheriting the same disease. I have a picture on my wall of a little girl whose whole life is limited by cystic fibrosis. She is smiling and holding out her baby brother, who we ensured would be free of the disease. How can people object to that?"

However, only two weeks ago, he spoke in support of a legal judgment that prevented a Scottish couple, whose daughter had died, from ensuring their next child would be a girl. "I have every sympathy with that couple," he says, "but my fear is that once you start choosing the sex of your baby for reasons other than medical ones, then the baby becomes a commodity and if, as a commodity, it is not quite up to the original it replaced or up to the standards you hoped for, then it could be rejected. It wouldn't be loved."

So what about designer babies in the future? "I can't see it happening," he says. "Blue eyes, for example, involve what we call one gene defect, so that is potentially possible. But most traits involve a multiplicity of genes. Trying to affect intelligence or strength or looks could involve hundreds of genetic influences."

Identifying one gene defect is fairly simple, but identifying two working in synergy is very difficult and identifying three is impossible.

What about cloning? Lord Winston's team is at the vanguard of therapeutic cloning techniques that involve taking stem cells from embryos under 14 days old. Such cells can be grown into any organs and implanted in defective recipients.

" 'Therapeutic cloning' is quite an emotive term because it suggests you are making another human being, which you are not," he insists. "Cloning has been around in human biology for 30 to 40 years. Cloning in plants has been around for thousands of years - the Romans were cloning vines 2,000 years ago.

"What I would do is not clone the embryo, but take stem cells from the embryo and clone them. The assumption is that the embryo is then destroyed, but it needn't be. We have developed techniques at Hammersmith where you can take cells from an embryo and encourage them to divide indefinitely. Effectively, you can immortalise them, growing kilos of cells to be used later."

So what about cloning for reproductive purposes? "I can't see why people are feeling threatened by this. It seems to me there might be a use in people with total sterility - no eggs, no sperm - but the way technology is going, that may be overcome using other techniques.

"You see, implanting cloned embryos takes hundreds of attempts. To create Dolly the sheep, hundreds of embryos had to be implanted before the scientists were successful. And humans are only one-fifth as fertile [as sheep], so you would need hundreds more.

"Imagine if you were Saddam Hussein and you wanted to create thousands of Republican Guard clones. You would have to find thousands and thousands of embryos and women to play host, and you'd have to wait 18 years for them to grow up, by which time you could have lost your power base. What's the point? I think it's all very unlikely."

As he finishes his meal, he looks very relaxed. "You know, respected doctors were appalled when Steptoe and Edwards created the first test-tube baby, and now it's regarded as normal. As long as research is conducted responsibly and ethically, this field of work will cease to be controversial."

By then, he will probably have retired. His wife, Lira, would like him to, and his children, Tanya, 25, Joel, 22, and Ben, 19, have, like most observers, expressed concern at his frenetic lifestyle.

But he's enjoying it and, he says, his staff won't let him go. There's no doubt, after three hours of sparkling scientific delivery, that he is a showman. But a medical egotist? It was once said of a loser that he was a modest man... and had much to be modest about. Lord Winston, perhaps, represents the reverse of that argument.

'Superhuman' is on BBC1 on Sundays at 9.10pm