Two scientists who upended fundamental beliefs about biology by demonstrating that every cell in the body has the potential to grow into every other type of cell have won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.
Sir John Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka were honored Monday for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed” to return to a very early state of development, the Nobel committee said in its citation.
Their research is still years away from yielding a clear breakthrough in medical treatment. But the work has upended the study of intractable conditions including heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s by allowing scientists to grow disease-specific and even patient-specific cells for experimentation in the laboratory, experts said.
“It’s nothing short of a revolution in how we think of a cell,” said Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director of the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, where Yamanaka works one week each month.
Gurdon, 79, performed his seminal work at Oxford University in the late 1950s and early 1960s a good deal of it before Yamanaka was born.
Working with frogs, he showed in 1962 that replacing the nucleus of an egg cell with the nucleus from a cell taken from a tadpole’s intestine allowed the egg to develop into a fully functional clone of that tadpole.
The discovery shocked his colleagues in the field. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether different types of body cells had different DNA or shared the same genetic instructions and just read them differently, Srivastava said. Gurdon’s experiments indicated that cells did contain the same genetic code and that individual cells were capable of creating an entire animal and thus any of its component parts if properly manipulated.
It would take 34 years for Scottish researcher Ian Wilmut to clone Dolly the sheep, replicating the feat in a mammal and capturing the public’s imagination.
Yamanaka’s achievement was to give scientists an idea of how that cellular reprogramming gets done. When he began this line of work, he was highly criticized in Japan for undertaking such a difficult project.
The Japanese scientist who trained as an orthopedic surgeon before becoming a full-time researcher figured out that activating simple combinations of genes in a mouse skin cell could rewind that cell to an embryo-like state, allowing it to develop anew as any other type of cell in the body.
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British, Japanese scientists share Nobel Prize for stem cell work