Principal’s Lecture: Sir John Gurdon

On Saturday 2nd February, UC5 and SFC pupils had the privilege of listening to a talk by Sir John Gurdon, a pioneer in the field of developmental biology and Nobel Prize winner for his work in stem cell research.

Sir John’s talk centred around how ordinary skin cells could be reprogrammed into specialised cells, such as those existing in the heart, and how this carries enormous implications for the future of transplantation and treatment of long-term illnesses. For example, macular (eye) degeneration, a common affliction affecting the elderly, could be halted by replacing damaged eye cells with new ones created using stem cells, providing greater quality of life. Sir John also explored the challenges facing scientists in this field, such as cells retaining ‘gene memory’ which creates a barrier to reprogramming.

Sir John went on to speak about gene editing tools such as CRISPR, which allow scientists to remove or replace genes, but which also raise significant ethical dilemmas for the scientific community. For instance, while some illnesses such as Hunter Syndrome could be eliminated using gene editing, the same tools could be used to decide the gender or eye colour of an unborn foetus. Gene editing on this scale could also have wider implications, for example insurance companies may exploit the opportunity to reduce coverage for those with ‘risky’ genes. Thus, Sir John called ethics ‘the great uncertainty of the future’, with respect to how it may limit our ability to take advantage of life-changing treatments.

Questions from students were wide-ranging. For instance, Sir John was asked whether stem cell research could benefit those suffering from memory-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, allowing us to further explore the use of stem cells in all areas of medical research.

Overall, the opportunity of listening to an expert at the forefront of his field was incredibly inspirational, especially given that he was encouraged not to take up science as a career while at secondary school!

Nicole (SFC2)