Obituary: Professor Keith Campbell, cell biologist
Born: 23 May, 1954, in Birmingham. Died: 6 October, 2012, in Nottingham, aged 58
Keith Campbell was the eminent biologist who attracted scientific fame, and some notoriety, when he helped to create Dolly the cloned sheep. In 1996 Campbell and his team first cloned a mammal, a Finnish Dorset lamb named Dolly, from fully differentiated adult mammary cells. Campbell had been researching animal cloning at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh since 1991. The sheep was named after voluptuous American country and western singer Dolly Parton.
The creation of Dolly proved controversial, both among scientists and animal rights followers. It certainly attracted much media coverage and the entrance to the Roslin Institute had camera crews and journalists in attendance every day.
The ethics of the experiment were discussed in much detail, with the Church of England expressing severe reservations. Dolly was put down in 2003 after she developed lung disease. She was euthanised and stuffed and is now in the National Museum of Scotland.
Campbell, a dedicated and conscientious scientist, firmly believed that research into medical use of embryonic stem cells would eventually lead to important health breakthroughs. He granted that the process might cause opposition but was certain that the long-term benefits would prove invaluable.
“There are groups that believe that life begins at conception and that you should not do any research involving embryos at all,” he said in a 2001 interview. “But we have been able to inform people of the potential benefits, and once they learn about it they are much more likely to be in favour.”
Keith Henry Stockman Campbell was born in Birmingham but when he was three years old his family settled in Perth and he began his education there.
When he was eight, the family returned to Birmingham, where he was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School and then qualified as a medical laboratory technologist, specialising in medical microbiology at Selly Oak Hospital.
Aged 21, he attended Queen Elizabeth College, London, where he qualified in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology.
After a brief time working as a lab technician in the Yemen, he returned to Scotland and studied for his doctorate at Dundee University. Campbell wrote his DPhil, titled “Aspects of cell cycle control in Yeast and Xenopus” at the University of Sussex in 1986.
After these studies Campbell returned to Scotland, “not only to pursue my career”, as he mentioned in an interview “but also because of my love of the outdoors and my keen interests in hill-walking and mountain biking”.
Inspired by past researchers such as John Gurdon, Campbell was keen to carry out further work into cloning mammals. In 1990 he joined the scientific team headed by Sir Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute. Many considered the possibility of cloning from a differentiated adult cell to be futuristic – straight out of the pages of a sci-fi novel.
At the institute it was Campbell’s ground-breaking research on cell cycles that paved the way to the cloning of mammals from differentiated cells.
He believed that, following fertilisation, egg cells went into a state of suspended animation as they co-ordinated the DNA acquired from sperm with their own. By synchronising the process the team successfully cloned two Welsh mountain sheep, named Megan and Morag, in 1995. It was substantially the same technique that the scientists at Roslin used when they cloned Dolly in 1998.
In 2008 there was a move among scientists at Roslin for Sir Ian to return his knighthood. In turn Sir Ian maintained that he played a lesser role in the research and insisted that “Professor Campbell deserves 66 per cent of the credit for Dolly”.
In July 1999 they were again successful and produced the world’s first gene targeted lambs (Cupid and Diana), followed in March 2000 by the world’s first piglets cloned from somatic cells.
In November 1999, Campbell moved south to become Professor of Animal Development at Nottingham University, where he continued his research into controlling and maintaining cellular differentiation.
Throughout his career Campbell spoke to the media in a forthright manner and explained his work in detail – patiently explaining the complex issues involved.
“The research,” Campbell advised, “will advance many studies in ageing and age-related diseases but also aid in the development of novel therapies for both human and veterinary applications.”
In July this year on Sue MacGregor’s Radio 4 programme The Reunion the team discussed their work of over a decade ago. When asked why a sheep was chosen, Campbell wryly answered: ‘We cloned a sheep because we couldn’t afford a cow!’
In conclusion, and striking a more serious note, Campbell summarised how some, but not all, of the expectations that arose from Dolly have been met.
Campbell, who was jointly awarded the prestigious Shaw prize for medicine and life sciences in 2008, is survived his wife Kathryn and two daughters from a previous relationship.
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