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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

FAILURES, FROGS AND FINDINGS, BRITAIN’S 2012 NOBEL LAUREATE

Today the “Diplomatic Dispatch” lives up to its name, as I post the text of the diplomatic telegram I sent back to London yesterday about Britain’s Sir John Gurdon’s Nobel prize win. I presented John with a copy of the text yesterday and he liked it, so I hope it means I’ve explained the science correctly – as a mere political scientist I am treading warily!

Summary

Sir John Gurdon honoured for ground-breaking research on reprogramming of cells, work which laid the basis for subsequent advances in stem cells and cloning.

Detail

1.     Sir John Gurdon, famously condemned by his Eton science master as a hopeless student, received his profession’s ultimate accolade last night when the King of Sweden presented him with the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine.

2.     Gurdon’s most important research, completed 50 years ago on a special species of African frog, demonstrated that the evolution of cells is not a one-way process. Gurdon replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell of a tadpole. This modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole. The DNA of the mature cell still had all the information needed to develop all cells in the frog. He thus carried out the first cloning of a vertebrate. The cloning of Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, followed the principle that Gurdon had used in his frog experiments.

3.     Subsequent research, particularly by Gurdon’s fellow 2012 laureate, Shinya Yamanaka, proved that mature cells could be returned to the stem cell stage. This research, now advancing rapidly, allows human skin cells to be reprogrammed into stem cells, giving science access to new tools for better understanding disease and for developing diagnostics and therapies. Commending John Gurdon at the award ceremony, the Nobel jury said that his research had “fundamentally changed our view of human development and cell specialisation.”

4.     Sir John set his discoveries in context in a lecture on the battle for supremacy between the egg and the nucleus, at the Karolinska Institute on 7 December.

5.     In his speech at the Nobel Banquet, he noted that frogs had figured prominently in the world of literature, from Aristophanes to Toad of Toad Hall. Quoting Belloc, he said “no animal will more repay treatment that is kind and fair.”   He explained that his work had raised the possibility of giving people new cells of their own genetic kind, and hence, without immuno-suppression, to replace cells worn out by age or disease, a hope of the new field of regenerative medicine.

Comment

6.     It’s fitting that ground-breaking research, which has paved the way for advances in treatment of illness should be celebrated on the day the UK Government committed £100m of new investment in science.

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