March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology 2007

The March of Dimes Foundation raises money to fund research and cures with regards to birth defects (which still affect over 120,000 new babies each year just in the United States). In May 2007, March of Dime awarded its annual $250,000 Prize in Developmental Biology to Anne McLaren and Dr. Janet Rossant of the University of Toronto. Dr. McLaren was recognized for her work in understanding the entire cycle of mammalian reproduction and embryonic development, and Dr. Rossant was recognized for her pioneering work on stem cell development in mouse embryos. The Prize is for investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects.

Anne McLaren (1927 - 2007) [New York Times, 7/23/07, A21]

Anne McLaren, a leading developmental biologist and expert on the embryo who in the 1980s conducted experiments on mice that were important in the development of human in vitro fertilization, died on July 7th in Britain. She was 80. Dr. McLaren died in a car accident near London while traveling with her former husband, Donald Michie, an authority on artificial intelligence and robotics.

Throughout her career, Dr. McLaren delved ever deeper into biological as well as ethical questions of reproduction and what she termed "everything involved in getting from one generation to the next."

In 1958, in work at University College London, Dr. McLaren and another researcher, John D. Biggers, were able to remove mouse embryos and hold them in culture for days before implanting them in the uterus of another mouse.

The novel transfer between strains of mice was part of a larger experiment to determine if offspring were formed by genetics alone or if there would be a measurable difference on development within a surrogate mother's womb.

Their findings were startling: the embryos implanted in a surrogate developed with a different number of vertebrae from that found in their genetic mother. Dr. Biggers and Dr. McLaren concluded that there was indeed some unknown effect on the embryos while in the uterus.

The work was later useful in refining techniques for human in vitro fertilization. Dr. Michie, who was then a geneticist and Dr. McLaren's husband, contributed to the research. They divorced in 1959.

Dr. McLaren went on to study chimeras in mice, in which individuals have two or more populations of genetically distinct cells. She wrote an influential book on the subject, "Mammalian Chimeras" (1976). Brigid Hogan, a professor of cell biology at Duke University and chairwoman of the department of cell biology there, said that Dr. McLaren had employed chimeras to pose fundamental and penetrating biological questions about how an organism's sex is determined as well as how many cells are needed to form a particular type of bodily tissues.

In 2002, for her work in using embryos and chimeras to help explain basic questions of reproduction and growth in animals, Dr. McLaren was awarded the Japan Prize for developmental biology. She shared the prize with Andrzej Tarkowski, who also studied mouse embryos.

Dr. McLaren's research led her to examine the reproductive cells, known as germ cells, that make up sperm and egg - how they formed, and how they interacted with surronding tissue. The work was detailed in another well-received book, "Germ Cells and Soma: A New Look at an Old Problem" (1980).

She also became increasingly aware of the ethical concerns attached to biological research and spoke about them on British and European ethics panel, gaining further stature when she became president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 1993 to 1994. Dr. McLaren argued in favor of pursuing research on adult stem cell lines as well as those derived from human embryos because, she said, "perhaps some diseases may benefit from one and some from the other".

Anne Laura Dorinthea McLaren studied zoology as an undergraduate at Oxford. She received her doctorate, also from Oxford, in 1952. She joined the Institute of Animal Genetics at the University of Edinburgh in 1959 and conducted her research there until 1974. Dr. McLaren then returned to London, as director of the Medical Research Council's mammalian developmental unit.

She was elected to the Royal Society in 1975 and because its first female foreign secretary in 1991. Dr. McLaren married Dr. Michie in 1952. She is survived by their son and two daughters.

Addressing ethical concerns about stem cell research, she wrote in the journal Nature in 2001: "Let a thousand stem cell lines bloom - but let them bloom in full view of all." Such bloomings, Dr. McLaren continued, would require a critical audience, "so that they can be subject to scientific and ethical review, freely available for research and one day, perhaps, for treating diseases".

Anne McLaren (1927 - 2007) [Science, 8/3/07, 609]

The death of Anne McLaren in England on 7 July 2007 has robbed us of a major leader in mammalian developmental biology and genetics. Not only was Anne a pioneer, she remained an active scientist whose influence extended across many other fields. Notably, she was a preeminent international figure in public policy debates around issues of reproductive technologies and stem cell research.

Anne's scientific career spanned more than 50 years, from early studies on embryo transfer to her most recent work on germ cell development. After receiving a D.Phil. in 1952 from Oxford University, she began her career at University College London, where she perfected techniques of embryo transfer in mice and demonstrated maternal uterine effects on embryonic patterning. This work was performed with her then-husband, Donald Michie, with whom she remained friends after they divorced in 1959. Sadly, he was with her in the car accident that took both their lives. With John Biggers, she showed for the first time that preimplantation mouse embryos cultured in a dish for 2 days could be returned to the mother's uterus to complete normal pregnancy. This combination of embryo culture and transfer enabled the development of human in vitro fertilization technologies. The media hype over the birth of these "brave new mice" in 1958 also gave Anne her first taste of public controversy around new reproductive technologies.

In 1959, Anne moved to Edinburgh to set up her own lab at the Institute of Animal Genetics, established by C. H. Waddington. There, she initiated research on a broad range of topics, including embryo implantation and chimera development. She describes this period of her long career as her favorite, when genetics, epigenetics (as defined by Waddington) reproductive biology, and developmental biology were coming together to define new ways of understanding mammalian embryonic development. Her classic monograph "Mammalian Chimaeras," published in 1976, gives an amazingly current view of the power of mouse chimeras to explore a variety of biological questions.

Anne moved back to London in 1974 to direct the Medical Research Council Mammalian Development Unit. Under her guidance, this became one of the world's preeminent centers for mammalian embryology and genetics. Many leading scientists developed their careers there, and many more, including us, were fortunate to receive Anne's mentorship. She was always ready to welcome visitors, give advice, and discuss scientific matters. You were subjected to tough questioning, but in a way that led to more rigorous experiments and deeper insight. As many will testify, Anne was also extremely supportive of scientists struggling to work outside the mainstream or with few resources. Her own research during this time turned to germ cell development and sex determination. With Elizabeth Simpson in the 1980s, she showed that the mouse gene encoding the male antigen H-Y was not related to the sex-determination gene on the Y chromosome. This began a chase that led to the cloning, by the Goodfellow and Lovell-Badge labs, of the true sex-determination gene, Sry, in 1990. She also showed the first location of germ cells in the embryo, and her work inspired the derivation of embryonic germ cell lines.

Anne was involved in the public debate about the ethics of new reproductive technologies. As a founding member of the Warnock Commission between 1982 and 1984, she provided the clear scientific background and advice that led to the first guidelines around in vitro fertilization and embryo donation for research. The U.K. Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, founded in 1990, remains a model for other countries grappling with the increasingly complex issues surrounding reproductive technologies and human embryo research. Anne played a major role worldwide in developing guidelines in many different jurisdictions. She regarded herself as "biologist, not an ethicist," yet could communicate with ethicists, philosophers, policy-makers, politicians, and the public with clarity and precision. She believed that scientists have an ethical duty to explain their research and its possible implications for society.

Anne's influence did not decline after her statutory retirement in 1992 -- if anything, it increased. She divided her time between ongoing research at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge and traveling the world, advising governments and learned bodies, teaching, and lecturing. She was appointed foreign secretary of the Royal Society, making her the first woman to hold a leadership position in the society since its founding in 1660. She received many awards and honors, including Dame of the British Empire in 1993; the Japan Prize, with Andrzej Tarkowski, in 2002; and most recently, the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology, with Janet Rossant, in 2007.

How did she manage all this -- to be an outstanding scientist, public educator and policy advisor, role model and mentor, as well as a highly involved mother and grandmother? We can only offer some clues from our experiences. She had no personal ego invested in her activities, but a strong sense of social responsibility and desire to see others succeed. Anne relished all kinds of social interactions and could party long after her younger colleagues had faded. She loved young people, and they responded in kind. And she truly did not suffer from jet lag. Anne traveled the world with one small rucksack and never seemed fatigued. She also knew how to balance family and work and to be successful at both.

At her death, Anne was in her prime. An excellent celebration of her life in science was held in Cambridge on the occasion of her 80th birthday earlier this year, and it seemed she would live and work forever. Now, she would not want us to grieve for long. Rather, she would encourage us all to live life to the full, while striving for the scientific and societal ideals that she worked so hard to achieve.