Retired prof’s achievements bring genetic breakthroughs

Robert McKinnell said Michael Crichton based "Jurassic Park" on his work.

Jeannine Aquino

Before scientists created Dolly and before researchers duplicated mice, there was the common Northern Leopard Frog.

In 1952 two scientists successfully cloned the frog at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. They had been using the frog to learn about the genetic potentiality of cancer cells.

As a student who would work at the center six years later, Robert McKinnell didn’t know the incident would spark half a century’s worth of research on the same species, Rana pipiens.

Since 1958, McKinnell, a retired University professor in genetics, cell biology and development, has made several breakthroughs in the fields of cloning, development and cancer research.

One of his major accomplishments is being the first to study the possibility of cloning cancer cells. The Philadelphia study focused on cloning only normal cells.

“At that time, it was thought that only cancer cells could develop from the genetic material of other cancer cells ‘ it was the dogma of the day,” he said. “I showed that we can get normal development from the genetic material of cancer cells.”

The reason for studying the cloning of cancer cells was the hope it would lead to better cancer treatment options, McKinnell said.

“Existing cancer therapy is tough on patients ‘ chemotherapy is toxic to the body, radiation is toxic to the body and surgery is not much fun,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could know more about the expression of the genetic material so you can control that expression in cancer cells?”

It would be better to make the cancer cell normal rather than killing it, McKinnell said.

Other accomplishments include being the first to raise a cloned animal ‘ a frog ‘ to sexual maturity and writing the first scientific book on cloning in 1978, titled “Cloning–nuclear transplantation in amphibia: A critique of results obtained with the technique to which is added a discourse on the methods of the craft.” Stuart Goldstein, a professor in genetics, cell biology and development, called McKinnell a pioneer in cloning.

“He has been one of the early people working on cloning before it was a fashionable field,” he said.

Ross Johnson, a professor and interim head of the department of genetics, cell biology and development, said McKinnell’s accomplishments leave a remarkable legacy in science.

“I think he’s had a long career where he’s made very important contributions in these areas,” he said, talking about McKinnell’s dedication to studying cancer cells and his “love affair” with frogs.

While Goldstein and Johnson have known McKinnell for more than 30 years, Jim Curley, a library assistant at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, which McKinnell now frequents, said he only recently met the retired professor. He said he was amazed at McKinnell’s enthusiasm.

“As a specialist in the field who’s devoted his life to the study of cancer and genetics but also to education, I think it’s amazing,” Curley said. “When you go out looking at references in the community, you see multiple authors will cite work that he’s done.”

McKinnell’s work might even have influenced nonscientific work, particularly Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel “Jurassic Park.”

In the book, Crichton talks about cloning reptiles from red blood cells.

Before “Jurassic Park” was published, McKinnell and a colleague had published a study investigating the use of red blood cells for cloning.

“(Michael Crichton) used that idea from us,” McKinnell said.

Although McKinnell said he was pleased with Crichton borrowing from his research, he said it still would be impossible to clone dinosaurs as described in “Jurassic Park.”

“Cloning has gone way beyond that,” he said. “It’s being used for new issues Ö It’s done to provide insight into the behavior of cancer cells.”