It is not easy to arrange
an interview with Anne McLaren. 'Yesterday it was the House of Lords
and tomorrow it is the European Parliament,' she explains as she
leads the way into the minuscule office she shares with a colleague
in the Wellcome/CRC laboratories in Cambridge. 'I hardly have any
time left to get on with my research.' At the age of 74, Anne McLaren's
prominence stems from half a century's work during which she has
repeatedly pushed back the boundaries of our knowledge of biology
A lifetime's work with mice
She started her career as a zoologist working
with mice, and she has studied this animal all her life. 'It is
through mice that I became interested in reproductive biology and
embryology. Working with them has allowed us to understand the immensely
complex question of how life develops and is transmitted.'
In 1958, Dr McLaren and fellow biologist John
Biggers published a landmark article in Nature. It explained how
they had succeeded in growing a mouse embryo in a test tube, and
then in transplanting it to be born 'naturally'. This scientific
'first' paved the way for an unprecedented leap in our understanding
of reproductive mechanisms and eventually led to the human fertility
treatments which are used today.
'I have always worked on the borderline between
genetics, reproductive biology and developmental biology, because
I am interested in the whole cycle of heredity. Reproductive biology
is about the hormones, the sperm and eggs, fertilisation. Developmental
biology looks at how the fertilised egg, the single cell, manages
to develop into a complex adult organism. And of course genetics
underlies the whole generation cycle.'
Beyond the laboratory
This incurably curious scientist argues ardently
that humans both need research, and have a duty to carry it out.
But she is also clear about the limits this implies. Her horizons
do not end at the laboratory door. For the last 20 years, conscious
of the many dilemmas that advances in life sciences are throwing
up, Dr McLaren has spent more and more time and effort on issues
of biological ethics.
In Britain, she was a key member of the Warnock
Committee, which laid the groundwork for the 1990 Human Fertilisation
and Embryology Act, an early initiative which has become a model
for defining ethical rules for human in vitro fertilisation
and embryology. Her insistence on transparency, the clarity of her
explanations, her personal modesty - all qualities which have benefited
the many young researchers she has trained - have made her an expert
with a wide international reputation. At the European level, she
is an active member of the Group on Ethics in Science and Technology,
and the High Level Group on Life Sciences, set up last year by the
Directorate-General for Research.
Dolly: potential and limits
Where does her commitment come from? Dr McLaren
believes that scientists have an ever greater need for a sense of
ethical responsibility, not so that they can make the rules - which
is the prerogative of society and its democratically elected political
leaders - but so that they can clarify the issues on the basis of
a sound understanding of the facts.
For example, the heated debate on cloning which
followed the birth of Dolly the sheep. An advocate of resisting
the temptation to resort to any form of human reproductive cloning,
she has clearly set out the reasons against using the technique,
which is in any case rejected by society at large.
On the other hand, she is careful to point out
that this technical feat, which consists in transferring the nucleus
of one cell into enucleated oocytes, could have a promising consequence
which has nothing to do with cloning: the production of human stem
cells which could be used to repair damaged organs.
'I fully support the recent decision of the British
Parliament, which has just passed, by a very respectable majority,
regulations allowing human embryos to be used for three clearly
defined new purposes, including tissue therapy,' states Dr McLaren.
She thinks Europe should follow this route, and should authorise
research on stem cells, probably under licence, so long as the results
are published and made freely accessible to all, in the same way
that the results of genome research have been. 'This open European
model could counter the American model, where the private sector
dominates the research and wants to keep its results secret. From
my point of view, such an attitude is understandable in technology,
but not in science.'
Science and the public
Does the growth of ethical concern express a growing
public unease about the impacts of scientific advance? She feels
that in Britain, the country she knows best, this diagnosis of distrust
for science - at least as regards bio-medical science - is greatly
exaggerated. 'People in this country certainly do not want cloned
babies. But they do want as much medical advance as possible.' What
is more, life sciences are far from being the only branch of science
or technology currently provoking ethical questioning. The material
development of the developed societies is threatening the Earth's
ecosystem - climate, ozone layer, loss of biodiversity - without
which life cannot continue.
On this issue, Dr McLaren had a great deal of
sympathy for the public outcry that the growing of genetically modified
crops in the UK provoked. 'This development is not taking place
to serve a consumer need, but in the interest of the seed companies.
And since there are unquantifiable risks for the environment - I
do not think there are any risks at all for food safety - the risk-benefit
calculation is not on the side of the genetically modified crops.'
Women and science
A final question: what does the president of the
UK's Association of Women in Science and Engineering think about
the question of gender in science? Even if she has not suffered
any real discrimination in her own career, she notes with concern
the predominance of male applicants for Medical Research Council
and Wellcome Trust research grants. This is just an example. 'Women
scientists face a terrible problem, the shortage of affordable and
accessible childcare facilities - which is also important for men
of course. Perhaps women have to be a little bit more confident
The International Journal of Developmental Biology
(vol. 45, no. 3, special issue 2001) contains a feature on Dr
McLaren's scientific achievements, by Brigid Hogan of the Vanderbilt
University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
Recent publications on ethics by Dr Anne McLaren
- 'Role of the state in genetics and reproduction
in the 21st century' in Towards Reproductive Certainty: Fertility
and Genetics Beyond 1999, Parthenon Publishing Group, 1999.
- 'Scientific implications of cloning'
in Proceedings of a Workshop on Societal, Medical and Ethical
Implications of Cloning, European Commission, 1999.
- 'The ethical dilemma: the living world'
in European Science and Scientists between Freedom and Responsibility,
EC Euroscientia Conference, 1999.
- 'Problèmes de planification dans
les pays développés: une perspective féminine'
in Contraception: contrainte ou liberté?, Odile Jacob,