LONDON >> Two decades after creating the clone Dolly the sheep and paving the way for new research into Parkinson’s, Dr. Ian Wilmut revealed on Wednesday that he has the disease himself.
The 73-year-old professor, who lives in Scotland, announced on World Parkinson’s Day that he learned four months ago that he had the disease, and that he would participate in a major research program to test new types of treatments intended to slow the disease’s progression.
“Initiatives of this kind are very effective not only because they bring more people together, but because they will include people with different experience and expertise,” Wilmut said in a statement. He was referring to the new Dundee-Edinburgh Parkinson’s Research Initiative, which aims to investigate the causes of the disease and to translate scientific discoveries into new therapies.
“It was from such a rich seedbed that Dolly developed, and we can hope for similar benefits in this project,” he added.
In 1996, Wilmut and a team of scientists at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, cloned an adult sheep, resulting in the birth of Dolly. The achievement shocked researchers who had said it could not be done.
But Dolly’s birth proved that cells from anywhere in the body could behave like a newly fertilized egg, an idea that transformed scientific thinking and encouraged researchers to find techniques to reprogram adult cells.
The new research led to the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, which hold great promise as a therapy for Parkinson’s because of their potential to repair damaged tissues, according to the Dundee-Edinburgh Parkinson’s Research Initiative.
These stem cells are now being used at the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh to develop drug-based treatments for Parkinson’s and other diseases. The first clinical trials of iPSCs treatment for Parkinson’s will be held in Japan this year, the initiative said.
“All attempts to slow the progression of Parkinson’s have thus far failed,” Professor Dario Alessi, a biochemist at the University of Dundee in Scotland, said in an email today. He highlighted that the most widely used Parkinson’s drug today, levodopa, was first used in the clinic in 1967.
“However, in recent years, our knowledge of the genetics and biology underlining Parkinson’s disease has exploded,” Alessi said. “I feel optimistic and it is not unrealistic that with a coordinated research effort, major strides towards better treating Parkinson’s disease can be made.”
Wilmut said he decided to announce his diagnosis because he thought it might be useful in the context of research.
“There was a sense of clarity, well, at least now we know, and we can start doing things about it,” he said in an interview with BBC Scotland. “As well as, obviously, the disappointment that it will possibly shorten my life slightly, and more particularly it will alter the quality of life.”
He lives in a hilly and rural part of Scotland and likes to walk, but he said that physical activity had become more difficult since his diagnosis.
Wilmut told the Times of London that he was happy to “act as a guinea pig and either donate tissue or try new treatments.”
Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and can cause involuntary shaking. So far, treatments are available to manage the symptoms, but there is no medicine or therapy to slow or stop the progression of the disease.
“People with Parkinson’s urgently require access to earlier and more accurate diagnosis, better prediction of how their disease will progress and, most importantly, the opportunity to participate in clinical trials of new treatments,” Dr. Tilo Kunath, a group leader at the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine in Edinburgh, said in an email.
Dolly died in 2003 after a lung infection, and her body was donated to the National Museum of Scotland, where she has become one of the most popular exhibits, according to the Roslin Institute.
“She’s been a friendly face of science,” Wilmut said in an interview with the New York Times after her death. “She was a very friendly animal that was part of a big scientific breakthrough.”