John Gurdon, 79, of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, Britain, and Shinya Yamanaka, 50, of Kyoto University in Japan, were awarded the Nobel Prize on Monday for their discovery and work that has made it possible to turn adult cells into embryo-like stem cells. Their combined research could one day regrow tissue in damaged brains, hearts, and other organs. The two men will split the $1.2 million Nobel Prize for Medicine.
John Gurdon became well-known in 1962 when he became the first scientist to clone an animal. Gurdon made a healthy tadpole from the egg of a frog and the intestinal cell of another tadpole. The frog experiment proved that developed cells carry the information needed to make every cell in the body.
When he started his work, Gurdon was going against the general belief that adult tissue could not be turned back into stem cells and that new stem cells could only be created if taken from embryos, a practice that was met with ethical objections in several developed nations.
Forty years later, Yamanaka produced mouse stem cells from adult mouse skin cells by inserting genes into the mice. It was Yamanaka’s study that proved adult tissue could be reversed and turned back into cells that behave like embryos. By reversing adult stem cells, it may be possible one day to turn a patient’s own cells into stem cells and then provide potential cures for their various injuries and diseases. Because a person’s own cells could be used, the chance of rejection is far less likely.
According to the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, the two men were chosen because “these groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and specialization of cells.”
Yamanaka’s paper has become a popular source of information over the last six years. The paper has been cited in professional studies more than 4,000 times.
At a news conference in Japan, Yamanaka said of the honor:
“My joy is very great. But I feel a grave sense of responsibility as well.”
Even with science’s top prize awarded to the men, stem cell research is sure to remain a hot bed topic for years to come.