Dr Gerry McLachlan on Cystic Fibrosis
Gene therapy treatments for cystic fibrosis in humans, challenge of engaging the public and his dream of being Kenny Dalglish.
Dr Gerry McLachlan is a group leader and senior research fellow at Roslin Institute. He and his team work as a part of the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium (UK CFGTC). They are involved in the preclinical development of gene therapy for cystic fibrosis using sheep as a large animal model to evaluate safety and efficacy of gene delivery to the lung. The following is an interview with Dr.McLachlan about his life as a scientist.
Could you tell me about your work in a nutshell?
I work as part of the UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium and we’re trying to develop gene therapy* for cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease in which the lungs and digestive system can become clogged with thick mucus.
Our team at The Roslin Institute is using sheep as a model to study gene delivery to the lung in people. We have been involved in a lot of preclinical testing* of gene therapy delivery vehicles (vectors*) to get the healthy gene into cells with a faulty gene. This is not an easy thing to do, people have been working on this for a long time.
Which workshops did you do at EBSOC and what did you enjoy about them?
I’ve helped out with ‘DNA Profiling: The Great Escape’, and ‘A Question of Taste” workshops. I was also involved with giving a short talk about my work to a group of American students from Union University, Tennessee.
I like interacting with people. I’m passionate about science and enjoy it, so I like to encourage others in this subject which is what I enjoy about EBSOC. I do a lot of public engagement outside the institute as well, like the 2 day primary school science event that happens every year in Peebles. I enjoy these kinds of activities.
What’s your favourite story from your time here?
There is one story related to a public engagement activity with Primary school pupils. We had developed a new activity based on chromosomes which I’d delivered to a group of primary 6 children and was feeling fairly smug about how well I thought it had gone. The following day a colleague whose daughter had been part of the group told me how she had come home to say how she had really enjoyed learning about “chrominomes”.
What were some of the challenges you faced?
Getting used to speaking at the right level and judging the audience, but I think I’m fairly good at doing that now because I’ve done it a lot. When you are talking to primary school kids, it has to be the absolute minimum and basic. That’s the biggest challenge I think and if you don’t get that right you won’t engage the children. If you pitch it at the right level they will listen and (hopefully) understand but if not their attention will drift quickly.
Public engagement is important because we have to be open about what we do and especially if you’re involved in animal research. We have to be able to justify it.
Why did you become a scientist?
I loved sciences at school. They were my favourite subjects. I really enjoyed chemistry and biology when I was at school so chose to a do a degree in biochemistry. The reason I liked chemistry so much in school was because my first chemistry teacher was quite an inspiring and charismatic person and taught the subject really well. He taught me for a couple of years and these kind of early influences definitely make a difference.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
My dream growing up would have been to be a professional footballer, I wanted to be like Kenny Dalglish. Also something I always liked at school was technical drawing and thought about architecture as a career but never took it any further.
*gene therapy: a technique that uses gene to treat or prevent diseases
*preclinical testing: to test a drug, a procedure, or medical treatment in animals
*vectors: the tool to transfer the specific gene into cells without harming them