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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Hard facts, firm principles
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image image image Date published: 11/07/2001
  image Hard facts, firm principles
RTD info 30
  British biologist Anne McLaren is someone people listen to when it comes to questions of ethics and life sciences. She was in on the invention of in vitro fertilisation and embryo transplantation. Nowadays her intellectual rigour and analytical capacity are tools to create a lucid and open-minded approach to the ethical and social issues which arise from the application of scientific knowledge.

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 and reproduction.

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 and assertive.'

Further reading:

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, Paris, 1999.
Anne McLaren

Anne McLaren, photographed by biologist John Biggers in 1958, the year they succeeded in fertilising a mouse embryo in vitro. It was subsequently transplanted and born normally - a scientific first which paved the way for the fertility treatment we enjoy today.


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