The 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Sir John B Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for work that, in the words of the selection committee, ‘revolutionised the understanding of how cells and organisms develop’.
The two scientists from different generations—Gurdon is 79 and Yamanaka 50—have shown that cells in the body can be reprogrammed into completely different kinds. In 1962, the British scientist Gurdon showed that DNA from specialised cells, like skin or intestine, of tadpoles could be used to clone more tadpoles. The same process led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, showing that it would also work in mammals.
In 2006, Yamanaka, who was born in the same year that Gurdon made his discovery, along with his team, made another major breakthrough in stem cell research. He turned mouse skin cells back into primitive cells, which in turn could be prodded into different kinds of mature cells. The work was later repeated with human cells. Primitive cells have been likened to ‘blank slates’, which can be turned into any cell in the body.
Their work offers an alternative to using embryonic stem cells, a controversial subject since it involves the creation, treatment and destruction of human embryos. What their work has shown is that embryonic-like stem cells can be created in labs from adult cells of the same organism.
Gurdon, who served as a professor at Cambridge University’s Magdalene College, currently resides at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which he founded. Yamanaka is a professor at Kyoto University. He is the first Japanese scientist since 1987 to win a Nobel Prize. Their research holds hope for treating Parkinson’s and diabetes.