PIONEERING professor Lord Robert Winston will be visiting the Mercury Theatre in Colchester next week to talk about the pros and cons of the modification of genetics.
Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College London, he is perhaps most famous for his pioneering surgical gynaecological techniques that improved fertility treatments in the Seventies.
He later pioneered new treatments to improve in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and developed pre-implantation diagnosis, which allowed embryos to be screened for genetic diseases.
And it’s genetics that forms the basis of his latest show, Modifying Humans - Where Does Genetics Stop?
He says: “I’m going to be talking about modifying humans. About how we might misuse genetics in the future in the way we have misused many other technologies.
“The concern I have is that we might end up trying to modify the human genome by trying to advance humans, in my view that is a very dangerous area to be involved with.”
In his one-man show, the renowned scientist asks whether the sequencing of the human genome really heralds a new opportunity for medicine or is there a darker side that we ignore?
IVF treatments mean we can now help 65-year-olds to conceive, store eggs and embryos in the deep freeze for several hundred years, and screen embryos for serious genetic disorders.
Advances in gene technology also mean that we can not only select embryos for ‘desirable’ characteristics but we can now modify genes of animals with remarkable ease.
Lord Winston asks whether ethical considerations will prevent us from the next step – manufacturing stronger, more gifted and very intelligent children? Or will our imperfect knowledge of how our abilities are inherited mean that they there are some major surprises in store?
Now heading up a research programme that aims to improve human transplantation, Lord Winston still concerns himself with the education of science as well as the practical side.
He has written more than 20 books, many for children including his latest, Home Lab: Exciting Experiments for Budding Scientists.
His books cover experiments, the human body, the brain, evolution, human instinct and fertility, subjects that he has discussed on TV and in the media many times “I do look at science broadly,” he says. “In the job at Imperial, I try to promote relationships between scientists and the public in general, and to improve the education of science.”
Which he does by paying visits to schools all over the country, most recently in our area to the Colchester Royal Grammar School.
“I think it’s every student’s duty to be scientifically literate,” he insists. “I’m not suggesting that science is more important than Shakespeare because it isn’t but there is a double standard because we will be accused of being illiterate if we have never heard of Hamlet but that doesn’t happen if we haven’t heard of the special theory of relativity.
“What we have to do is to try and ensure as much science as possible has a practical angle to it because that’s what most children get turned on by.”
Just looking at Lord Winston’s incredibly varied career should be enough to do that.
“There are so many highlights,” he says, “I don’t know where I would start.
“I suppose the work we did which revolutionised pelvic surgery in the Seventies, the work on a whole range of fertility disorders which I continue to deal with, the work on IVF of which I was one of the pioneers and now the world’s first successful attempt at understanding genetics and embryos and being able to scan them for defects which would be inherited.”
But there is still much work to do.
“Today fertility treatment is a massive commercial market,” he continues, “and people are not being advised that there are a whole range of treatments for infertility, depending on the cause.
“IVF is seen as a panacea and it’s not a very good panacea, it’s not a very successful one. Less than one third of cycles are successful, there are many other treatments which are more successful given specific personalised medicine.
“Also the advice that is given can lead people to do things which are not what they really want to do. Such as being orced into having IVF too early or forced to store their eggs or persuaded to get an MOT test about their fertility. None of these things are very reliable. In my view the market has been very unhelpful in wise guidance for those who are concerned about whether they will be able to have children.”
Although no one can deny the leaps and bounds this area of medicine has taken since the Seventies, and that’s largely thanks to people like Lord Winston.
He says: “When I became the director of fertility at Hammersmith Hospital in 1980 a senior consultant asked me ‘why would you want to work in the Futility Clinic?’ “What that remark showed was the general attitude towards fertility in the Seventies, and in particular fertility disorders. There was a widespread, almost misogynistic view of people who were ‘bothering’ doctors with their fertility problems. One of my most important issues was changing that attitude, that’s perhaps one of the key things I helped to achieve.”
Robert Winston: Modifying Humans - Where Does Genetics Stop?
Balkerne Gate, Colchester
Tuesday, April 25. 7.30pm. £18.50. 01206 573948.