Nobel winner Yamanaka a stem cell pioneer

SHINYA Yamanaka could have made bits of sewing machines for a living. Instead, his tinkering with the building blocks of life has made him a Nobel prize winner.

Born in 1962 in a Japan beginning a decades-long manufacturing boom, Yamanaka was the only son of a factory owner who produced parts for sewing machines.

But even as the country's industries exploded in the 1970s, his father told him he should not follow the traditional Japanese path and take over the family business, but become a doctor.

Half a century later and after a stint as an orthopaedic surgeon, he is a leading authority on how cells work.

Kyoto University-based Yamanaka was being celebrated on Monday for his work, alongside Briton John Gurdon, on how cells can be reprogrammed.

So-called "nuclear reprogramming" uses a fully-developed adult cell to create a stem cell - a kind of blank slate that has the potential to become any other kind of cell in the body.

Scientists say in this way they can generate materials either to experiment on, or to use within the body - perhaps as a means of repairing or even replacing damaged or diseased organs.

Gurdon's work proved that mature cells maintain the "memory" of what they could have been; a brain cell that specialises in transmitting messages retains its ability to absorb nutrients like a cell in the wall of the intestine.

To do this, he took the nucleus from a specialised cell and implanted it into an egg without a nucleus. Allowed to develop naturally, this becomes an early-stage embryo containing stem cells.

Harvesting those cells necessitates the destruction of that embryo.

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Nobel winner Yamanaka a stem cell pioneer

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