I recently attended the ‘Coming of Age: the legacy of Dolly at 20’ symposium at The Roslin Institute, which reflected on and celebrated the impacts that have stemmed from Dolly’s creation. As I’m sure most of you are aware, BBSRC investment in the scientific programme that led to the creation of Dolly was key. However, at a more personal level, Dolly has inspired many breakthroughs in stem cell biology, my own area of science, and so attending this meeting was a real pleasure at a number of levels.

Ian Wilmut set the scene by taking an interesting historical look at the key developments that contributed to the approaches used in Dolly’s creation. He was keen to emphasise the importance of team work and how diversity delivered benefits, citing in particular expertise on the cell cycle that Keith Campbell brought to the group.

Goetz Laible, from AgResearch in New Zealand and Angelika Schnieke, Technical University of Munich, provided fascinating updates on developments in livestock biotechnology, from the tailoring of milk composition in cattle through to the development of pigs as models for human disease – gene editing featuring as a real game-changer.

A top highlight of the symposium was Shinya Yamanaka’s presentation, where he cited Dolly as inspiration for his research. It is now 10 years since he and Takahashi reported their success in generating the first induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC; I clearly remember being at the ISSCR conference in Toronto when this work was presented and being struck by the simplicity of the approach).

Having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012, Professor Yamanaka now leads The Centre for iPSC Research and Application, Kyoto University, which focuses on translating the potential of iPSC technology in both regenerative medicine and disease modelling – where real progress is being made. They are also working towards developing a bank of iPSCs that, for transplantation purposes, match over 90% of the population of Japan. This is seen as an efficient route to exploiting the potential of iPSC technologies and one that is being pursued in Europe too.

There remain some really important fundamental questions in stem cell biology and Sally Lowell presented some fascinating work studying the role of cell orientation in stem and progenitor cell behaviour – enabled by some excellent new imaging software that her team has developed.

It became abundantly clear to me that, 20 years ago, no-one could have predicted the research areas that Dolly’s creation would inspire, or the indeed the wider impacts. It emphasises that key discoveries can have unimaginable transformative effects. Certainly two decades ago no-one would have considered that it would be possible to reprogramme adult cells to a pluripotent state with just four transcription factors; this discovery itself is revolutionising approaches to cell therapy and understanding diseases.

For me, this clearly makes the case for  investing in research where useful outcomes are far from certain at the outset, but the potential impacts are transformative; otherwise we will miss opportunities such as those the legacy of Dolly exemplify.

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