This week at the Progress Educational Trust (16 January 2019)
The Progress Educational Trust (PET) is delighted to begin 2019 by announcing that its new Chair of Trustees is the eminent developmental biologist Professor Robin Lovell-Badge.
Robin is Group Leader in Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute, and has worked with PET on numerous events and initiatives in recent years. He is at the forefront of scientific, policy and ethical debate about many issues of key concern to PET including genome editing, mitochondrial donation, in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), synthetic human entities with embryo-like features (SHEEFs) and the 14-day limit on human embryo research (a limit that was originally proposed by PET's Patron Baroness Mary Warnock).
Robin says: 'I am honoured to have been appointed the new chair of PET, one of my favourite organisations. I am always amazed at how much PET does in an often challenging field, and I hope that I can help the charity make an even bigger impact. There are several important topics - ranging from the 14-day rule, to in vitro derived gametes, to human germline genome editing, as well as important issues for patients seeking help to have healthy children - that need attention from regulators, informed by good public dialogue. PET will clearly have a busy time over the next few years, and I am very much looking forward to playing my part in this.'
Most recently, Robin was one of the organisers of the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, where Chinese scientist He Jiankui caused a furore by claiming to have created the world's first genome-edited babies. Robin chaired the session in which He outlined and defended this claim, and Robin was also coauthor of a widely reported statement in which He's work was censured by the Summit organisers.
Robin remains in occasional contact with He, and continues to field questions from the world's press about the controversy (he can be seen pictured left at the centre of a massive throng of journalists at the Summit). On BBC Radio 4's Today programme last week, Robin said the following to John Humphrys.
'We can imagine many situations where the ability to alter genes in a developing embryo - such that the child is born without a serious genetic disease, and they will no longer pass that risk to their own children - is a really valuable thing to work towards. One of the many problems in this case is that He Jiankui chose a gene, and a situation, for which there was no unmet clinical need. So first of all, there was no need to do what he did, to prevent the child from getting HIV. The way he went about doing it was technically flawed, so he didn't achieve what he had set out to do. So there's a whole long list of things that he got wrong. He didn't consult with regulators or ethicists properly. It was a mess.'
You can listen to the whole five-minute interview online here (the item begins at the 1:43:20 mark), and you can also listen to two other interviews with Robin - this interview conducted during the Summit by the BBC World Service's Science in Action programme, and this more recent interview conducted for the Financial Times podcast. Recent days have also seen Robin quoted by the print edition of the Financial Times and by CNN, Reuters, Science Business, the Independent and New Scientist magazine, among many other publications.
Robin's predecessor as Chair of Trustees, Fiona Fox, will continue to work with PET as a member of the charity's Advisory Committee and also in her capacity as Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre. Fiona has recently been made an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and of the British Pharmacological Society, and here you can hear her interviewed by Professor Richard Dawkins in the recent Radio 4 programme Trust Me I'm a Scientist (her contribution begins at the 32:45 mark), discussing topics including genome editing and mitochondrial donation.
Besides welcoming its new Chair, PET has also been busy exhibiting at Fertility 2019 - the annual joint conference of the British Fertility Society (BFS), the Association of Clinical Embryologists (ACE) and the Society for Reproduction and Fertility (SRF) - which was held in Birmingham. Many of the experts who spoke at Fertility 2019 will also be speaking at PET's public events in coming weeks and months.
On that theme, PET took a particular interest in the conference's Anne McLaren Memorial Lecture, which was entitled 'IVG: Next Generation IVF?' and concerned the latest developments in in vitro gametogenesis. The lecture was given by Professor Evelyn Telfer, a pioneer in attempts to create human eggs in the laboratory, who will next be discussing her work at a PET symposium on the afternoon of Tuesday 19 March.
Evelyn's lecture was chaired by Professor Colin Duncan - Chair of the SRF - who will be speaking at a PET event about the past, present and future of IVF taking place next week, on the evening of Thursday 24 January.
PET's many upcoming events are listed in chronological order below. They make up a packed programme running from January through to May, and taking place in London, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to book places or make enquiries.
Thursday 24 January: '40 Years of IVF: Past, Present and Future'
This event will see Alastair MacDonald - the second person ever to be born who was conceived via IVF (and the first male) - speak alongside Grace MacDonald (his mother), Sally Cheshire, Professor Colin Duncan, Dr Kay Elder and Dr Abha Maheshwari.
If tweeting about this event, please use the hashtag #IVFis40
Tuesday 5 March: 'Talking Genomics with Patients'
This event forms part of the Genomics Conversation, a programme of activities which involves the public and stakeholders in discussions about key issues in genomic medicine.
If tweeting about this event, please use the hashtag #GenomicsConversation
Tuesday 19 March: 'Revolutionising Reproduction: The Future of Fertility Treatment'
Tuesday 19 March: 'Germline in the Sand: Where Should We Draw the Boundaries for Genome Editing?'
Wednesday 3 April: 'How Can We Make Surrogacy Law Deliver?'
If tweeting about this event, please use the hashtag #PETsurrogacy
Thursday 16 May: 'Testing Times: How Should We Use Genomic Data in Assisted Reproduction?'
Meanwhile, PET has been going through audience feedback from its recent Annual Conference 'Make Do or Amend: Should We Update UK Fertility and Embryo Law?'. This conference saw a stellar lineup of speakers - together with a packed audience of more than 200 people from the worlds of science, medicine, policy, law, ethics, patient advocacy and the wider public - debate law and regulation governing fertility treatment and embryo research.
PET has published the following two Keynote Presentations from the conference in its flagship publication BioNews.
'New science, new families, old law: is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act fit for purpose?'
By Sir James Munby (former President of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice)
'The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act: Is it broke and should we fix it?'
By Sally Cheshire (Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority)
Subscribe to BioNews for free here to be kept updated with further conference-related articles, as well as synopses of PET's upcoming events.
Elsewhere, the conference is discussed in this article on the Science Museum's website, which focuses on those parts of the conference that addressed genome editing and the He Jiankui controversy. Speakers quoted include Dr Kathy Niakan (the first researcher licensed by the UK regulator to edit the genomes of human embryos) and Sarah Norcross (Director of PET). Furthermore, PET has published two BioNews comment pieces by conference discussing the controversy.
'I remember where I was when I heard about the world's first genome-edited babies'
By Dr Andy Greenfield (Programme Leader in Mammalian Sexual Development at MRC Harwell)
'Genome editing in humans could become both ethical and prudent if properly regulated'
By John Harris (Emeritus Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester)
Besides genome editing, another topic addressed by the conference which attracted widespread press coverage was surrogacy. Ahead of giving his Keynote Presentation, Sir James Munby was interviewed in the Mail on Sunday, and this in turn generated news coverage in the Telegraph and in the Metro, with his remarks on surrogacy drawing particular attention.
This led to two other conference speakers - Natalie Smith and Natalie Gamble - appearing on the Today programme to debate whether and how surrogates should be paid. They then published articles giving their contrasting views on this question, with Natalie Smith writing for New Scientist magazine and Natalie Gamble writing for the Guardian newspaper.
The debate also generated other commentary, including this article in The Times, and the subject will be explored further at PET's 'How Can We Make Surrogacy Law Deliver?' event on the evening of Wednesday 3 April. Finally, a presentation on egg freezing at PET's conference - given by the medical sociologist Dr Kylie Baldwin - is the subject of this article in the Daily Mail.