UCL News


Professor Stern receives Waddington Medal

23 March 2006

Professor Claudio Stern (UCL Anatomy & Developmental Biology) was last night presented with the Waddington Medal for developmental biology at the spring meeting of the British Society for Developmental Biology (BSDB) in York.

Professor Claudio Stern

The prestigious Waddington Medal, awarded by the committee of the BSDB, is the only national award in developmental biology. Professor Stern won the medal in recognition of his outstanding research performance, as well as services to the subject community.

Conrad Waddington (1905-1975) was an influential British embryologist and geneticist, who emphasised the importance of gene activity to embryonic development even before the chemical nature of genes was fully understood.

Professor Stern's research has focused on the earliest developmental processes in the embryo, which are responsible for ensuring that the organ systems are formed normally and have appropriate sizes and shapes. He concentrates on four key events at this developmental stage: gastrulation, neural induction, left-right asymmetry and somites. Gastrulation is the process by which some embryonic cells become apportioned to internal organs while others are instructed to remain external. In this external layer, the process of neural induction then subdivides into one region destined to form nerve tissue and another that will form the skin. At around the same time, the embryo turns on specific genes that allow cells on the left and right sides of the embryo to become different from one another. Finally, he investigates how somites form: these are blocks of cells destined to form the vertebral column, which also guide the spinal nerves that will go on to innervate the muscles.

These early embryonic events are fundamental to the continuation of life. Professor Lewis Wolpert, UCL Anatomy & Developmental Biology, pronounced gastrulation to be 'truly the most important time in your life' - more significant than birth, death or marriage. One of the basic questions raised in Professor Stern's research is about how cells communicate with each other so that the areas destined for all these different fates end up being the correct size and forming in the correct position. Such knowledge will aid our understanding of many diseases that can occur if communication between cells goes wrong. Cancer, for instance, is a de-regulation of cell behaviour in the adult, analogous to cells reverting to an early embryonic state in which they simply reproduce rather than form into body tissues. Professor Stern's work with embryonic cells also informs research into the therapeutic use of stem cells. In order to manipulate stem cells to repair damaged tissue, practitioners need to be able to instruct cells in culture to change into the desired tissues and organs that can be used for therapeutic applications.

Interestingly, Professor Stern's career has reflected Waddington's in several ways. Waddington also chose gastrulation, neural induction and left-right asymmetry as a focus for his research, but the connections between the two men go beyond their overlapping interests. Stern began his PhD at Sussex just three days after Waddington's death in September 1975. In fact, he was about to travel to Edinburgh to visit the just-deceased professor when his new supervisor, Brian Goodwin (himself a student of Waddington), told him the news. Upon joining UCL Anatomy & Developmental Biology for a postdoctoral position in 1978, Stern worked for Ruth Bellairs, whose own mentor Michael Abercrombie had studied with Waddington.

The Waddington Medal has on one of its faces the image of a serpent eating its own tail - a symbol of recurrence - with the Greek inscription 'en to pan', loosely translated as 'one to all', which implies that one entity incorporates into itself all other entities of the universe. Professor Stern identifies a satisfying circularity in his winning of the medal. He said: "Receiving this award is a particular honour for me, as I am, in a sense, Waddington's intellectual grandson."

As recipient of the medal, Professor Stern delivered the annual Waddington lecture to the BSDB meeting. Under the title 'In my beginning is my end… in my end is my beginning', a quote from TS Eliot, he spoke about Waddington's career and the impact it has had on his own work.

For more information, follow the links at the bottom of the article.

Image 1: Professor Claudio Stern
Image 2: The Waddington Medal