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What does a 14-day human embryo look like?


Stem cells and experimentation on human embryos
Aaron Klug Scientist
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So by the time I came to my last campaign at the Royal Society, it was on stem cells, again... well, stem cells surfaced, I finished on November 30th 2000. Before I left, we had managed to get a Bill through Parliament allowing the use of stem cells. Now this again... this happened only in Britain. Only in Britain are we allowed to... there are a few other countries. In Germany, it's totally forbidden, in the States it's not allowed because Bush will only allow certain cell lines to be used for stem cells, it's all very limited. There are one or two other countries contemplating it. It may be one of the smaller countries, it may have been in Holland that they allow it now. Now this again goes back... it's the same sort of pattern that's happened with global warming. When I was on Council in 1989/90 the issue came up of experimentation with embryos, and I've forgotten how it all surfaced, but people wanted to find out whether you could... you could do research on animals of course, but this would now be on human embryos, and so... we managed to – we produced a paper – it had been debated – this... is all to do with IVF and people like that, and what do you do with cells which have been fertilised and they don't implant, surplus cells they're called, and from which you could produce an embryo, blasocysts and things of that sort, in the early stages of development for implantation into the uterus.

It turned out people were woefully ignorant of this. A member of the House of Lords, a lady member, thought a test tube, we call them test tube babies, she really thought that you actually implanted the ovum, you fertilised it, and you grew it in a test tube, you grew a whole embryo in a test tube, so they hadn't realised they get implanted into the womb, and the ignorance was appalling. But... they set up a commission called the Warnock Commission which was to allow work on this sort of thing, and Anne McLaren who is a very distinguished embryologist... we discussed all this and the French were discussing this and... but they never got anywhere, and so we decided to produce a paper. I was on Council and she suggested we should argue in Parliament with the Warnock Commission, through the Warnock Committee, that experimentation on human embryos should be permitted up to 14 days. But we were looking for a time table... obviously you can't do it on foetuses which are really pretty big, and I realised from listening to the public that most people don't know the difference [between] an embryo and a foetus. They think the embryo is a little homunculus. Ann MacLaren suggested that we choose 14 days, because that's the day in which a primitive streak, the origin of the nervous system, begins to appear, so before that, it was quite interesting discussions, because, you know, Aquinas had said that the soul only enters the body at 40 days. I've forgotten the name of the Pope in 1859. The Pope, of course... there was a new biology, he thought, life begins not at 40 days, but at conception. Of course, he was right, and this changed the teaching of the Catholic Church. So there were all sorts of side issues one had to learn about.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: The Royal Society, Warnock Commission, Aquinas, Anne McLaren

Duration: 4 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008