British researcher John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine yesterday for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells — a discovery that scientists hope to turn into new treatments.
Scientists want to harness that reprogramming to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory.
The prize committee at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute said the discovery has “revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.”
Gurdon showed in 1962 — the year Yamanaka was born — that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin or intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. That showed the DNA still had its ability to drive the formation of all cells of the body.
In 1997, the cloning of Dolly the sheep by other scientists showed that the same process Gurdon discovered in frogs would work in mammals.
More than 40 years after Gurdon’s discovery, in 2006, Yamanaka showed that a surprisingly simple recipe could turn mature cells back into primitive cells, which in turn could be prodded into different kinds of mature cells.
Basically, the primitive cells were the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, which had been embroiled in controversy because to get human embryonic cells, human embryos had to be destroyed. Yamanaka’s method provided a way to get such primitive cells without destroying embryos.
“The discoveries of Gurdon and Yamanaka have shown that specialized cells can turn back the developmental clock under certain circumstances,” the committee said. “These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine.”
Just last week, Japanese scientists reported using Yamanaka’s approach to turn skin cells from mice into eggs that produced baby mice.
Gurdon, 79, has served as a professor of cell biology at Cambridge University’s Magdalene College and is currently at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which he founded.
Yamanaka, 50, worked at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco and Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. He is currently at Kyoto University and also affiliated with the Gladstone Institute. Yamanaka is the first Japanese scientist to win the Nobel medicine award since 1987.