April 4, 2007: 'Headless frog' scientist to lead U stem cell efforts

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2007 - 9:32 PM

When a scientist shared his thoughts about cloning, he was surprised to make front-page news 10 years ago. Now, the world-class scientist is at the University of Minnesota.

Jonathan Slack, newly named head of the U of M Stem Cell Institute, is a world-class scientist.

Ten years ago, British scientist Jonathan Slack set off an international furor when he told a reporter that his lab had created a headless tadpole, and that it might be possible to do the same thing with human embryos.

One critic called it "a modern monster story." Another blasted it as "scientific fascism." He was reviled in print from South Korea to Brazil.

For Slack, the new director of the University of Minnesota's Stem Cell Institute, it was a lesson he'll never forget. As a scientist, he thought he was engaging in a hypothetical discussion. But he woke up as front-page news.

"I was in for my baptism of fire at the hands of the media," he later wrote in his book "Egg and Ego."

The name of the chapter: "The Case of the Headless Frog."

This week, the university announced that Slack, 57, had been named head of its stem cell program after 11 years at the University of Bath in England.

A widely respected biologist and author, Slack is best known for his pioneering work on turning liver cells into pancreas cells (a potential treatment for diabetes). And for his studies on how animals (tadpoles) regenerate limbs.

He was such a big name in the field that the university's search committee "didn't believe he was serious" when he applied for the stem-cell job, said Dr. Charles Moldow, vice dean for research. "This is one of the ... fathers of developmental biology. He's written the textbook."

The university saw him as dynamic enough to replace the institute's internationally known founder, Dr. Catherine Verfaillies, who left as director to return to her native Belgium.

Slack has tried to distance himself from the flap over the headless tadpole, which he calls a "storm in a teacup." It was, after all, 10 years ago, he said in an interview.

But at the same time, he knows that public angst over his field of research has not gone away. That's especially evident in the raging debate over the use of human embryonic stem cells, which he supports. As Slack wrote in one of his books, "It is an ethical minefield."

'I was a bit green'

It all started innocently enough in 1997, when Slack was asked to appear in a BBC documentary about Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Although he wasn't involved in that research, he was involved in genetic research. He mentioned that his own lab had created headless tadpoles by manipulating their genes. (He explained later that they weren't the first to do so, and this was part of a study to find out how tadpoles develop normally.)

When asked if the same technique could be used to manipulate human embryos, Slack said yes: It could be done to grow spare parts for transplants. The documentary hadn't yet aired when a London Sunday Times reporter, who had seen the preview, called.

Slack repeated his comments. "Instead of growing an intact embryo, you could genetically reprogram the embryo to suppress growth in all the parts of the body except the bits you want," he told the reporter.

He found himself on the front page of the Times on Oct. 19, 1997, with the headline, "Headless frog opens way for human organ factory."

Looking back, Slack said, "I was a bit green. I didn't advocate this. I simply said this was one of the things that might become possible."

His university quickly responded with "a respectful note to media personnel," noting that there were no "headless frogs" -- just tadpoles that lived less than a week.

  • HEADLESS FROG EMBRYO?

    • To read a 1997 story from the London Telegraph about Jonathan Slack and his research that included work with headless frog embryos, go to www.startribune.com/a2554.

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