20 Years On: Dolly The Sheep’s Legacy For Stem Cell Research
At reaching the 20th anniversary of Dolly the sheep, we look at how her conception was not just an extraordinary one-off feat of genetic engineering, but a major catalyst for stem cell research, catapulting it 20 years into the future.
At 4am on July 5th, 1996, a lamb was brought into life in a rather different way from any of her cousins. The little lamb, christened Dolly, was the world’s first animal cloned from an adult stem cell.
Created in a laboratory by scientists at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, Dolly the sheep received her name in tribute to Dolly Parton and the fact that the cell she originated from came from the mammary tissue of another sheep.
Lead by Sir Ian Wilmut, Dolly’s conception was the result of a combination of 5 years of research which lead to nothing less than a revolutionary breakthrough in the fields of stem cell research and genetic engineering.
Despite raising many ethical concerns and worries about the technique being replicated to clone humans, Dolly’s legacy lives on in the way the Roslin team intended — advancing research efforts and opening up new doors for treating debilitating diseases using stem cells.
Creating Life From A Stem Cell
Dolly was born from an in-vitro fertilisation process which involved taking an adult stem cell from one sheep and implanting it the egg from another.
To do this, the team at the Roslin institute pioneered a technique to collect the nucleus from the stem cell and transfer it into an unfertilised egg cell whose own nucleus had been removed.
On administering an electric shock, the hybrid cell began to divide and develop into an embryo which was then placed into the womb of a surrogate mother to start a pregnancy.
The result, an exact genetic copy of the original cell donor that would go on to become the world’s most famous sheep.
Easier said than done. Sir Ian was quick to point out Dolly’s conception was a huge stroke of luck — being the only surviving cell from nearly 300 cloning attempts.
Dolly went on to live a normal, healthy life, even having her own lambs over 3 pregnancies. In later life, Dolly developed arthritis and became infected by a virus that causes lung cancer. This is thought to be due to premature ageing brought on by being cloned from a sheep that was already 6 years old.
Today she sits in the national museum of Scotland, where for her 20th anniversary she will be moved to a new display to take centre stage once again.
How Dolly’s Legacy Lives On
The unique method pioneering by Sir Ian and the team went on to be adopted by other scientists working in stem cell research.
Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka said that Dolly inspired him to begin developing stem cells derived from adult cells — later going on to win a Nobel Prize for his findings.
The research of Yamanaka and others, lead to what many believe to be Dolly’s biggest impact — the generation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).
“The odds are that somebody would have come upon iPS cells through a different route, but that process, which is key to a lot of things, would have been delayed by an unknown number of years. It might have taken 20 years.” —Sir Ian Wilmut
The development of iPS cells, which are artificially created and have the ability to develop into any other cell in the body, reduced the need for using embryonic stem cells (which have long raised controversy), and is leading to many more incredible breakthroughs in stem cell therapy.
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