The Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology has been announced and it has been awarded to two pioneers of stem cell research, John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan. The award was given in recognition of Gurdon and Yamanaka’s pioneering work in stem cell research, being able to, for the first time, change adult cells into stem cells.
It was the pair’s work that has led to the growing field of stem cell research, which is being used in practically every medical or biological field, as stem cells, found in developing embryos, have the ability of developing into any other type of cell in the body, a potential that is particularly vast. The Nobel committee lauded the two, saying their work had “revolutionized” science.
While both scientists’ work was conducted nearly 40 years apart, their distinct approaches nonetheless helped to pave the way for such scientific breakthroughs as the cloning of Dolly, the sheep, and stem cell research.
In essence, what both scientists were able to do was create a process in which adult cells, which had been specialized, were in a way reset so that they went back to their primitive stage, that is as stem cells that had not yet developed into a particular type of cell. John Gurdon’s technique, propounded in 1962, showed that any cell within the body contains all the genetic information for a complete organism and taking the cells from a frog’s intestine, he placed them in some frog eggs, which developed into a clone of the intestine cell donor.
Shinya Yamanaka, on the other hand, used a method by which the application of four genes turned an adult cell back into a stem cell, reversing the process.
In their announcement of the award, the Nobel committee said, "The discoveries of Gurdon and Yamanaka have shown that specialized cells can turn back the developmental clock under certain circumstances. These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine," while adding that the scientists’ work “revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.”
Speaking about the Prize, Prof. Yamanaka said that it was a “tremendous honor" and added, “I am able to receive this award because of John Gurdon. This field has a very long history, starting with John Gurdon."
Prof. Gurdon himself said at a press conference, "I am immensely honored to be awarded this spectacular recognition, and delighted to be due to receive it with Shinya Yamanaka, whose work has brought the whole field within the realistic expectation of therapeutic benefits. I am of course most enormously grateful to those colleagues who have worked with me, at various times over the last half century."