Well, what do ewe know? Biology: An obscure meeting hits the jackpot as 'father' of cloned sheep is scheduled to speak in town next month.

February 27, 1997|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Mary Ann Brown figured her conference on "The Impact of Molecular Biology on Animal Health and Production Research" would draw maybe 70 scientific types to Baltimore's Hyatt Regency Hotel on March 10.

But that was before one of the conference's long-scheduled speakers -- Scottish embryologist Dr. Ian Wilmut -- announced this week he had become the "father" of the world's first cloned sheep.

"Hopefully, Dr. Wilmut should increase those numbers," Brown, the conference director, said yesterday.

That seems like a safe bet.

Wilmut's announcement has astonished the scientific community, drawn worldwide headlines and editorials and sparked endless talk-radio discussions and bad jokes. It's also made Brown's selection of a speaker look brilliant.

That's just fine with Brown, the conference director. Her company, the Cambridge Healthtech Institute, a 4-year-old company that organizes bio-medical and bio-technology meetings, makes money only when the gatherings attract plenty of attendees. To that end it tries to keep meetings focused on the most important, cutting-edge topics. In the case of Wilmut, it couldn't have done much better.

Experts in the field "have known he [Wilmut] was working on nuclear transfer in sheep. But I don't know if they knew how far along he was," she said.

Baltimore was chosen for the conference because of its proximity to the U.S. Agricultural Research Station in Beltsville. Its scientists are among the speakers at the two-day meeting.

Now Brown is anticipating additional requests from scientists to attend. (Late registration costs from $445 to $895; the Hyatt yesterday reported no discernible surge in room reservations.) It is also bracing for a flood of reporters.

"We're not used to this. Will you send me a clipping of your story?" Brown asked, with a giggle.

Wilmut's success at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, which has made headlines all week, is finally described in today's edition of the British journal Nature.

Most molecular biologists had given up on trying to clone adult mammals. It had simply proven too difficult.

What Wilmut did was simple in concept: He took an udder cell from an adult sheep and fused it with an unfertilized egg cell from which the nucleus -- and consequently its genetic codes -- had been removed.

The DNA in the udder cell then took command of the de-nucleated egg, and it began to divide. The dividing cell was then implanted in the uterus of a surrogate ewe, which then had a normal pregnancy. No daddy sheep needed.

The work proved to be extremely difficult in practice, however. It was Wilmut's sole success in 277 attempts.

"Dolly" -- the healthy lamb born last year from the cloned egg -- is genetically identical to the sheep that donated the udder cells -- a sort of time-delayed twin.

Wilmut's ultimate aim is to repeat the procedure with adult cells that have been genetically altered to produce pharmaceutical substances that can't easily be produced in needed volumes.

A cloned sheep, for example, might then be able to produce large volumes of medical products in its milk.

The Baltimore conference is about livestock and molecular biology, Brown said. It was planned for scientists from around the world who are working in drug development, particularly for animal health, and those investigating the genetic codes of livestock.

Agricultural scientists have doubts about the wisdom of producing herds of identical prize-winning cattle and pigs. But they are interested in the technology for what it might do to

improve the quality and efficiency of animal reproduction.

The popular buzz surrounding Wilmut's work, of course, is all about whether or when scientists should begin cloning experiments with humans.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, told a House subcommittee yesterday that "the cloning of an existing human being is repugnant to the American public" and that most scientists would reject such research.

"Our sense of wonder as human beings is linked to our diversity, and human cloning experiments are not consistent with our diversity," he said. Furthermore, cloning humans would answer no important scientific questions, he said.

"It makes interesting movies but poor science."

Conference information is available at (617) 630-1300, or, on the Internet, at http: //www.healthtech.com/conferences/.

Pub Date: 2/27/97

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