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Nobel in medicine goes to stem cell researchers

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Nobel in medicine goes to stem cell researchers
11:08 CEST+02:00
The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for research into stem cells.

They shared the prize jointly "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent".

"The Nobel Prize recognizes two scientists who discovered that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. Their findings have revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop," the Nobel Committee at the Karolinska Institute wrote in a statement on Monday.

The Local asked the panel how the discovery affects debate about moral aspects of stem cell research.

"We have a very open debate in science, the Nobel Committee does not participate so much in that, but we as individual scientists and physicians do, and regulations evolve according to a general consensus of what is acceptable in society," said Anna Wedell, professor and researcher at the Karolinksa Institute.

"Every great discovery in biology that has applications in humans needs to be discussed and that is being done. We try to contribute to the best of our knowledge."

Gurdon discovered in 1962 that the specialization of cells is reversible. He replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. 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.

Yamanaka discovered more than 40 years later, in 2006, how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. Surprisingly, by introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, i.e. immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body.

According to Jonas Frisén, a professor of stem cell research at Karolinska and a member of the Nobel Assembly, the discoveries of Gurdon and Yamanaka can be likened to finding the "master key" of cell biology.

"One can distinguish two major advances here. One is conceptual in how we understand how cells are locked into their specialist states and that it's actually possible to reverse this process," he told The Local.

"The other is in terms of applications and these discoveries have resulted in the technology to generate stems cells which can give rise to all cell types in the body and this is a very major practical advancement."

Frisén mentioned the neurological disorder Parkinson's as one of the diseases which could end up being treated as a result of the discoveries.

"Now it's possible to take a skin cell from a patient and reverse it to a stem cell state and then generate neurons from them," he explained.

While there is a great deal of interest in applying the findings to treatments for neurological diseases, they can also be applied to many other diseases, ranging from heart failure to diabetes.

However, Frisén added that it's still too early to say exactly when cell transplantation treatment may occur in humans, one of the possibilities the 2012 Nobel Laureates discoveries makes theoretically possible.

"It's really impossible to say. We will see clinical trials in the not too distant future, but it's impossible to say if and when it may benefit patients directly through cell transplantation," he said.

John B. Gurdon was born in 1933 in Dippenhall, UK. After receiving his Doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1960 he was made a postdoctoral fellow at theCalifornia Institute of Technology.

In 1972 he joined Cambridge University, UK, and has served as Professor of Cell Biology and Master of Magdalene College. Gurdon is currently at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge.

Shinya Yamanaka was born in Osaka, Japan in 1962. After obtaining his MD in 1987 at Kobe University, he trained as an orthopaedic surgeon before switching to basic research.

Yamanaka received his PhD at Osaka University in 1993, after which he worked at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco and Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. Yamanaka is currently Professor at Kyoto University and also affiliated with the Gladstone Institute.

According to the Nobel Assembly of the Karolinska Institute, these groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed scientists' view of the development and cellular specialisation.

"We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy," the committee wrote in the statement.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinehe is awarded by the Nobel Assembly, consisting of 50 professors at the Karolinska Institute. Its Nobel Committee evaluates the nominations.

Be sure to follow The Local's Nobel Prize live blog here for more information and background on the prizes.

David Landes

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