STOCKHOLM A British researcher and a Japanese scientist won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine today for discovering that ordinary cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells, which then can turn into any kind of tissue a discovery that may led to new treatments.
Scientists want to build on the work by John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory without the ethical dilemma posed by embryonic stem cells.
In announcing the 8 million kronor ($1.2 million) award, the Nobel 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.
At the time, the discovery had “no obvious therapeutic benefit at all,” Gurdon told reporters in London. “It was almost 50 years before the value the potential value of that basic scientific research comes to light,” he said.
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.