Professor David Whittingham

David Whittingham was born in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire.  After completing the preclinical course at the Royal Veterinary College he spent a year studying for a special degree in Anatomy at University College London in 1960 before returning to the RVC to complete his veterinary degree in 1962.  J Z Young and Michael Abercrombie had a profound influence on his decision to pursue a career in scientific research.  After a short period in general practice he obtained a Fulbright Award to join John Biggers at the University of Pennsylvania to study for a PhD in the area of early mammalian development.  During his graduate training he was the recipient a Pennsylvania Plan Fellowship to Develop Scientists in Basic Medical Research. He spent several summers studying marine organisms at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole on the Fertilization and Gamete Physiology Program organised by Charles Metz and Alberto Monroy.  He continued studies at the Carnegie Institution of Embryology and Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene before spending a year at Sydney University working in collaboration with Ray Wales.  He returned to the UK in 1969 with a Beit Memorial Fellowship to work with Bunny Austin at the Marshall Laboratory in Cambridge and in 1974 he joined Anne McLaren in the new MRC Mammalian Development Unit at University College London.  From 1981 to 1998 he was Director of the MRC Experimental Embryology Unit and from 1990 has been Professor of Experimental Embryology in the University of London. From 1999 – 2008 he was Adjunct Professor of Reproductive Biology at the Institute of Biogenesis, John Burn Medical School, University of Hawaii.

            His initial research studies were on the nutrient requirements of the early mammalian embryo and the problems of the so called “2-cell block” experienced by mouse embryos grown in vitro. He found that pyruvate was the only extracellular energy source able to support maturation of the mouse oocyte and development of the zygote through the first cleavage division.  Much of this early work contributed to the development of suitable media for oocyte maturation, IVF, embryo culture, transfer and storage in the human and other mammals.  In Sydney he achieved the first successfulfertilization of mouse oocytes in vitro and the birth of live young.  At the time this was only the second mammal in which IVF and the birth of live young had been obtained. In Sydney he became interested in low temperature storage of embryos and while his initial studies were limited from lack of experience in the fundamentals of cryobiology this was rectified when he was invited to join Peter Mazur and Stanley Leibo at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1972.  Within 3 months the problems were solved and for the first time in a mammal the birth of live young was achieved from preimplantation stage mouse embryos previously frozen to temperatures as low as -2690C!   During the next 25 years the basic technique has been adapted and used successfully for a variety of mammals including domestic livestock and the human.  Some of the other achievements in gamete and embryo storage made by David Whittingham and colleagues especially Maureen Wood and John Carroll include the first live offspring from frozen mature and immature oocytes and from frozen isolated primary follicles, the survival of frozen primate and rodent ovarian tissue as assessed after grafting and the development of methods for vitrification of oocytes and embryos. Later he and colleagues developed methods to freeze-dry spermatozoa and subsequently obtain live offspring with them.

            Apart from cryobiological studies he also contributed to our knowledge of the activation of the mammalian egg at fertilization through studies of parthenogenetic and normal activation.  He and his student Roy Cuthbertson made the first observations of the unique pattern of Ca2+ oscillatory activity initiated in the mammalian oocyte by the fertilizing spermatozoon.  Subsequently his colleague Karl Swann showed that a protein isolated from sperm triggers this unique pattern of oscillatory activity.   In the 1980s colleagues in his Unit were responsible for producing the first animal model with a pre-selected genetic modification - the HPRT-deficient mouse model of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome - from a spontaneous mutation in a mouse embryonic stem cell line.  With this model he showed together with Alan Handyside and Marilyn Monk the feasibility of diagnosing an inherited defect in an embryo before implantation.

            He is an elected Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Royal Society of Medicine and the Royal Society or Arts, a member of the Society of Scholars at Johns Hopkins University and an honorary member of the Association of Clinical Embryologists (ACE) and the Society for Reproduction and Fertility.  He is the recipient of the George Porter Prize for contributions to laboratory animal science, the Samuel Werner Award for outstanding contributions to scholarship and research and the Marshall Medal of the Society for the Study of Fertility. Recently was the first non-Japanese person to receive a special prize and award from the Japanese Society for Ova Research for fundamental contributions to biomedical research.

Former member of the Human Fertilization Authority, the scientific committee of the Birth Defects Foundation, Chair of the Trustees of the Progress Educational Trust, and external examiner for the ACE Diploma.


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