Nobel Prize for Medicine goes to John Gurdon for ‘pluripotent cells'

Oct 8, 2012

Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka share prize for work in reprogramming stem cells

Rubenstein; Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty

THE Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to two scientists for their work in reprogramming cells. The Nobel committee announced today that Briton Sir John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, from Japan, had been awarded the prize for "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent".

The committee said the pair's research had "revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop".

Sir John Gurdon, who works at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, has been honoured for demonstrating in 1962 that a nucleus from a mature frog cell could be transplanted into an egg cell which had had its nucleus removed to produce a new frog. The technique, explains Nature, is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer – or ‘cloning' – and was used to create Dolly the sheep. "His work revolutionised the understanding of developmental biology and cell fate, showing that a genome contains all the information needed to transform a cell into a whole organism," says Nature.

Yamanaka's work is more recent, but it also involved taking a mature cell and returning it to a more youthful state. In 2006, he showed how mature mouse cells could be turned into stem cells, by subjecting them to a cocktail of proteins. These induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are described as ‘pluripotent' because they are able to develop into any of the various different types of cell required to produce a functioning organism. Yamanaka, who works at Kyoto University, later achieved the same feat with human cells.

Research on human stem cells has stirred ethical controversy because the usual source of them is embryos. Yamanaka's work raises the possibility of a less controversial source of human stem cells, which it is hoped will eventually have a range of therapeutic uses.

Tom Douglas, a research fellow at Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said the award was a "rare example of a scientific discovery that may solve more ethical problems than it creates". He added: "Many ethical objections to stem cell research have focused on the need to destroy human embryos. iPS cell technology may ultimately enable scientists to evade these objections by deriving pluripotent stem cells from adult tissue.

"For the moment, though, iPS cell research will need to run parallel to research with embryonic stem cells.”

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