Scientists guilty of 'hyping' benefits of gene research

Speaking on the eve of his presidential address to the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Trinity College, Dublin, the former head of fertility medicine at the Hammersmith Hospital in London also criticised the "hype" over stem cells. He said stem cells are unlikely to be of much use for many years.

Lord Winston called on his colleagues to use more moderate language when describing scientific breakthroughs, singling out in his speech senior scientists and naming two Nobel laureates for making dangerously arrogant remarks.

"James Watson's assertion about the value of tampering with the human germ-line are a pretty good example," he said. Professor Watson, who won a Nobel prize for discovering the DNA double helix with Francis Crick, has extolled the possibility of altering the genes of germ-line sperm or egg cells to eradicate inherited diseases.

Lord Winston also criticised the Nobel laureate David Baltimore for claiming that the human genome offered the information needed to create a human being. "We knew what he meant, of course, but actually the sequencing brings us no nearer to the spectre of creating a human being whatsoever," he said.

He added that scientists risk a public backlash against their work if their claims were shown to be extravagantly misleading.

For instance, Michael Dexter, the former chief executive of the Wellcome Trust, said in 2001 that sequencing of the human genome was an invention more important than the wheel. He also compared it to the splitting of the atom. "Five years later, genetic medicine based on this work has had little impact on health care and it's unlikely to have much impact for some years."

Embryonic stem cells offer great potential benefits but many of the problems were glossed over when describing these benefits to the public, he said.

"Of course, the study of stem cells is one of the most exciting areas in biology but I think that it is unlikely that embryonic stem cells are likely to be useful in health care for a long time," he said.

Stem cells from embryos can produce abnormal numbers of chromosomes and there is a risk that rogue cells can cause random tumours in a patient. "All these difficulties and many others may be overcome in time. But during the political campaign to encourage the UK Parliament to accept liberal legislation, some parliamentarians were clearly led to believe that a major clinical application was just around the corner," Lord Winston said.

"As disappointment sets in ... we can expect a massive backlash by the right-to-life groups who are always ready to pounce when they perceive a chink in our arguments," he said.

Lord Winston also criticised the trend towards commercialisation of science, which he said increases secrecy and undermines its public role. "Once the pursuit of science becomes heavily geared to profit, which the public feels it is not sharing in any major way, scientists may be compromised. They may be perceived as ... not working merely for the public good," he told the conference.

Lord Winston's targets

JAMES WATSON

Nobel Prize winner in physiology and medicine in 1962. Discovered the DNA double helix with Francis Crick.

Lord Winston said: "In recent years we have seen exaggerated claims made by leading scientists that are sometimes patently fatuous. James Watson's assertion about the value of tampering with the human germline are a pretty good example."

DAVID BALTIMORE

Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, 1975. President of Caltech, won the prize for his work on virology.

On his claims that the human genome offered the information needed to create a human being, Lord Winston said: "We knew what he meant, but actually the sequencing brings us no nearer to the spectre of creating a human being whatsoever."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Sport
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Sport
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
Sport
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game