Regenerative medicine: Dolly’s legacy, 25 years on

5 July 2021

Dolly the Sheep

25 years ago today, Dolly the Sheep was born at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, becoming the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

The establishment of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and the advancements it has made in stem cell research and regenerative medicine since are a direct legacy of this historic moment.

A focus on stem cells

Dolly was the first ever clone of an adult cell. Her birth proved that scientists could turn the clock back on a fully developed adult cell to make it behave like a cell from a newly fertilised embryo.

Dolly inspired further research by scientists across the globe, ultimately leading to the discovery of induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells. These are cells taken from a person, which are genetically reprogrammed in a laboratory to give them the ability self-renew and differentiate like embryonic stem cells, making them capable of forming all the different cell types found in an organism.

This discovery was a major development for stem cell research. Reprogramming cells in this way is something that scientists now use in the search for new treatments for major diseases.

In particular, iPS cells offer scientists the unique opportunity to explore and develop cell-based regenerative therapies, where cells are transplanted into a patient to replace or repair damaged tissue.


What is regenerative medicine?


Professor Ian Wilmut with Dolly the Sheep
Professor Sir Ian Wilmut with Dolly the Sheep

Centre for Regenerative Medicine established

The research team responsible for Dolly was led by Professor Sir Ian Wilmut.

Following the success of the cloning research, Ian began to focus on using cloning to make stem cells which could be used in regenerative medicine. In 2008, he established the Centre for Regenerative Medicine, a research centre dedicated to the study and development of new regenerative treatments, becoming its first Director.

Since its establishment, scientists and clinicians based at the Centre have continued to make breakthrough discoveries in the field of regenerative medicine.

2009 - Safer stem cells for humans

Prof Keisuke Kaji made a major breakthrough in 2009, sucessfully refining a technique to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

2012 - Better understanding of how stem cells are controlled

Prof Ian Chambers’ group made fresh discoveries regarding the gene regulator Nanog. Named after Tír na nÓg, the mythical Celtic land of the ever-young, Nanog controls the efficiency with which stem cells create duplicate cells.

2013 - Bacteria’s hidden skill could pave way for stem cell treatments

Prof Anura Rambukkana and his team at CRM found that bacteria were able to change the make-up of supporting cells within the nerve system, called Schwann cells, so that they took on the properties of stem cells. 

2014 - Cell therapy trial offers new hope to liver disease patients

Prof Stuart Forbes and his team received £2 million funding from the Medical Research Council and Innovate UK to start a clinical trial for liver disease patients using a new cell therapy to treat the condition. It was the world’s first clinical trial of a new type of cell therapy to treat liver cirrhosis.

2016 - Notch3 drives Cholangiocarcinoma

Scientists at the CRM identified a molecule that drives the development of bile duct cancer. The research in mice and human cells sheds new light on what triggers the disease and how the illness progresses.

2017 - Brain cancer screening hope

Prof Steve Pollard and his team used technology to modify the genes of neuronal stem cells in different ways, including engineering two mutations found in glioblastoma. This will allow the more detailed study of the precise effects of different genes and mutations in neuronal stem cells, providing models for glioblastoma to investigate the disease.

2019 - Brain cell changes in people with MS revealed

Professor Anna Williams and her team found that people with MS had different types of cells in the brain - oligodendrocytes  - than healthy people.


History of CRM


Dolly's legacy continues

In 2015, The University of Edinburgh secured £10.7m capital funding to build a new research facility adjacent to CRM. The new building, together with the CRM building, will house the University's new Institute for Regeneration and Repair.

The Institute for Regeneration and Repair brings together multiple existing world-leading research centres, including  the Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the Centre for Inflammation Research. It will be home to over 600 scientists and clinicians, seeking to understand stem cell biology, inflammation and disease to develop new therapies to heal damaged tissues

The ultimate aim of the new Institute is to develop new regenerative treatments and make these available to patients in the clinic. This would be a truly transformational achievement, just as Dolly’s birth was 25 years ago.


Origins and aims of the Institute for Regeneration and Repair


Timeline of regenerative medicine since Dolly
History of stem cell and regenerative medicine research at the University of Edinburgh