Dr. Ian Wilmutthe scientist who has led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, he passed away at the age of 79. The announcement of his passing was made today by the University of Edinburgh, where Wilmut had been a professor before his retirement in 2012. Dolly the sheep was an iconic milestone as the first successful cloning of a mammal obtained from an adult somatic cell, demonstrating the feasibility of the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique. Although controversial, this scientific achievement paved the way for current research into regenerative medicine.
Born near Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1944, Wilmut developed an interest in biology during his school years in Scarborough. He subsequently changed his major at the University of Nottingham from agriculture to animal science, beginning the work that would make him famous. During his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Wilmut began to explore the field of sperm and embryo preservation through freezing. In 1972, he became the first scientist to successfully freeze a calf embryo, called “Frostie“, and to transfer him to a surrogate mother after the thawing process.
He subsequently dedicated himself to the creation of genetically modified sheep capable of producing milk containing proteins capable of curing human diseases. A year before Dolly was born, he managed to clone two lambsMegan and Morag, using cells taken from sheep embryos.
Dolly’s birth in 1996 was a milestone, as it was the first time a mammal was successfully cloned from an adult cell. This revolutionary scientific discovery sparked great media attention and led to ethical debates about the future of cloning, with many concerns about the possibility of cloning human beings. Wilmut later demonstrated that not only could cells be used to clone an animal, but they could also be genetically modified. In 1997, it was born then Polly, the first genetically cloned mammal, which had a human gene inserted into its genetic makeup to produce a protein missing in people with hemophilia. Polly was Wilmut’s last cloning experiment.
In the following years, Wilmut focused his research on using cloning to produce stem cells for regenerative medicine. In 2008, he was knighted for his scientific contributions and retired. In 2018, he was diagnosed with the disease Parkinsonand has since supported a research program to try to slow the progression of the disease.