Lord Winston initially began his talk by discussing the astonishing claim from Chinese Scientist He Jiankui that has made recent headlines. Dr He has claimed to have created the world’s first genetically edited babies – something banned in most countries. He edited the embryonic genes in an attempt to protect them from infection of the HIV virus, which was carried by their father. Lord Winston explained that although the claim has not yet been supported by evidence, it is of great concern to the scientific and medical community, given the potential as yet unexplored negative implications of gene editing on the individual, such as possible genetic mutations. He also explained that in such cases of a HIV positive father and HIV negative mother, the chances of the child contracting HIV is actually very rare. The topic led on to a discussion with students about the basis of ethical guidelines within science and the issue of consent in such experiments.
Lord Winston posed big questions to stretch and challenge the students, such as “Can anyone think of a major invention that has not caused harm?”. The audience gave suggestions including the wheel, optical glasses, the printing press and the MRI scanner. Lord Winston gave the example of the laser, discussing the ubiquitous applications to life including in astronomy, computer hard ware, the internet, and of course medical procedures.
When asked by one student what, of all his great achievements he was most proud of, Lord Winston replied “getting a group of scientists to work together as a team”. For Lord Winston, success comes through collaboration.
At the end of his time with the students, Mrs Flannery presented Robert with a donation to his charity, Genesis Research Trust, which funds research into the causes of infertility, miscarriage, and premature birth.