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Personalised medicine (Part 1)


David Weatherall Scientist
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The other developments, kind of peripheral to the research over the years, I suppose, we’ve had a, I had an interest in one or two areas which, and I suppose the most pressing one for me in the '70s was the kind of, emerging problems of ethics, relating to the new genetics. I, I, not, I’ve had no training in this field at all, I don’t know what training means in this field, you, either you’re a philosopher or you’re a geneticist. I suppose it first came to me when I had to do that little, that lecture and little book in the late '70s on the new genetics in clinical practice, and starting to think about it, but the thing that actually really bothered me was the, the first gene therapy experiment in the United States. The Martin Cline experiment, I mean, he was a very bright guy, and he thought that he was ready to transfer normal genes into thalassemic red cell precursors, which he clearly wasn’t, and so his application was turned down in Los Angeles by the local ethics committee, but he managed to get some, a group in Israel to allow him to do the experiment, and they did it and of course it didn’t work, but fortunately it didn’t do any harm to the patient. And he got in a lot of trouble when he got back to the States. But it just seemed to me about that time, that anybody could pop into this country and, because a lot of us were quite naïve at the time, they could probably sell this, you know, this to us without too much difficulty actually. So the first thing I did, I suppose it was, in the, still in the late '70s actually, was to drop a note to the MRC, I think the director was Dai Reese at the time, and we, I said- look, this is really, I really am concerned that this could happen in this country, so they got a little working party together, and we managed to get a paper out on behalf, not just of the MRC, but all the European Research Councils, with some very simple guidelines on what one should, what should be in place before this was even contemplated. And the, the MRC, I think, then talked to the government, and this ended up in the formation of a committee chaired by dear old Clothier– a wonderful character, which was to look at the ethics of gene therapy basically. It was a very interesting committee, because he of course is a lawyer, but we had Nick Ross of television fame, who was there to ask the questions that the public would want to know, and he was fantastic value. He was so determined to learn some genetics, that he insisted on writing the introduction to this report, with a kind of explanation of genetics for the man in the street, and so, and then there were some general practitioners, and I think somebody who knew some genetics, and myself as the kind of middleman. And in the end I think we got quite a good report out actually, really talking about the, the gene therapy in principle, there was no kind of ethical objection. We, at that time of course there was somatic cell gene therapy, and then there was this talk about germ cell gene therapy and we, we did put, we felt that germ cell gene therapy was a totally different ball park actually, and that there were some ethical issues that needed a lot more thought before that was contemplated. And I think that was the beginning of the government’s going to, gene therapy regulatory body which, as far as I know over the year’s been quite, was really quite successful. I think this country’s not been bad on sorting out these issues, compared with a lot of countries. I did one or two other things in the early days of stem cells on the government committees, but then round about that time it became clear to some of us that what we really needed in the UK was an ethics, a bioethics group that was totally separate from government or any of the kind of hierarchy of medicine. And so a few of us got together, Lord Flowers was the, was the kind of biggest help in all this, because I think at the time he was Chairman of Nuffield, and so we ended up in some awful building in one of the Royal Parks, I can’t remember where it was, I know I had to be carried out the next morning because the bed broke my back, but we threw this around for the weekend, and then that was the beginning of the Nuffield Bioethics Committee. And again, I think because it’s been able to be, we had a lot of trouble with that actually, I mean, the Royal Colleges were furious, they said the didn’t need any help on bioethics from anybody, and the research councils were not too happy either. I don’t think the government were too happy really, but anyway, I think largely due to Flowers it was, it got off the ground. I served on that for the first five years, and I think overall it’s been pretty successful, there’s, had some very good reports. It, it, as things have turned out, given all the problems of the pharmaceutical industry and government and what’s happened in medicine over the recent years particularly and ethical issues and so on, it was probably just as well there was somebody who was outside the, outside all kind of influence, and I hope that will continue. There’s no sign of it kind of being axed or anything. I think the, it still requires a lot of funding from people like Wellcome and so on, but that’s good actually. It has diverse funding and it helps to keep its independence. So those were the, I think that was my entrée into bioethics.

British Scientist Sir David Weatherall (1933-2018) was a world renowned expert on blood diseases, in particular thalassaemias, and used his expertise to help control and prevent these diseases in developing countries. He founded the Institute of Molecular Medicine at Oxford in 1989 and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Marcus Pembrey

Marcus Pembrey, now Emeritus, was Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London and consultant clinical geneticist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children London. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Bristol UK, where he was the Director of Genetics within the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children until 2006. A past president of the European Society of Human Genetics, he is also the founding Chairman of the Progress Educational Trust.

Duration: 7 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2007

Date story went live: 02 June 2008