Medicine or Physiology Nobel Prize to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for stem cell research

By Grant Jacobs 08/10/2012

This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology has been awarded to John Gurdon (79) and Shinya  Yamanaka (50) for work that lead to the understanding that mature specialised cells could be ‘reprogrammed’ back towards a state that was not specialised to any one purpose, but open to become many kinds of cells.

Formally the citation is “for discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”.

This work has many potential areas of use including testing how bodies grow and develop, and disease treatment. Yamanaka, for example, aims to create a ‘bank’ of stem cells from foetal blood cells.

This pair had previously been jointly awarded the 2009 Lasker Prize for this line of research. There is a good explanation of their work with some illustrations showing a quick outline of what was done on the Lasker Prize website.

Those wanting a very brief and overly simplified ‘gloss’ on this may read on:

Cells in our body grow from general-purpose cells that can become many types of specialised cells. These ‘stem’ are what we call pluripotent – able to develop into many kinds of cells. It had once been thought that this process was irreversibly, that once a cell was specialised to be a particular type of cell it could not be reversed “back” to become a stem cell. These researchers shown that you could, in fact, reprogram mature cells to become stem-like, able to grow into different kinds of cells.

There are two basic ways this was demonstrated.

Each cell has a nucleus – the organelle in our cells that holds our genes. In the first method to make a mature cell pluripotent, the nuclei (plural of nucleus) of early embryo cells were transferred to mature cells whose nuclei had been destroyed. In this transfer, the ability of the cell to become like the earlier state in the embryo was also transferred and some of these cells were able to grow into mature cells and animals (tadpoles and frogs). This line of work was done by John Gurdon.

More recently another approach was to transfer particular genes, rather than whole nuclei. Yamanaka drew up a list of genes that might confer pluripotency, first finding that 24 genes transferred at once would do the trick. (This is a quite a technical achievement, beyond just being smart thinking.) In later work his group showed that just 4 gene were needed: Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc, and Kif4.

The work of many other researchers was used by these two scientists, both before their work and during their work, but these two researcher made key achievements that have led to the work of stem cell biologists today.

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0 Responses to “Medicine or Physiology Nobel Prize to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for stem cell research”

  • Via @matt_levinson and @iansample on twitter, this quote:

    “There is a lovely story that John Gurdon still treasures a school report from his biology teacher at that institution which says, ‘I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist. In present showing, this is quite ridiculous.’ The teacher’s comments were based on his pupil’s dislike of mindless rote learning of unconnected facts. But as we shall see, for a scientist as wonderful as John Gurdon, memory is much less important than imagination.”

    From, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance by Nessa Carey (page 14).

    I would add, this doesn’t just apply to the likes of John Gurdon, but also less celebrated scientists. Being able to ‘visualise’ things can count for a lot. (JME.)

  • John –

    Nothing stopping you doing your own take. There will be plenty of them to come over the next few days!

    I intentionally wrote targeting “newspaper readers” with something somewhere between a newspaper short and the longer, more in-depth, pieces that will for certain follow later. There’s plenty of scope for other takes and angles.

    (To be fair to myself, if it weren’t for that I was trying to get off to bed I might have added more perhaps in the direction of the transcription factors in Yamanaka’s work – gene regulation, epigenetics and chromatin are core interests of mine.)

  • […] Scientists have been trying to reprogram cells able to become any kind of cell, to be pluripotent[7]. Sea stars are able to pull off this reprogramming trick themselves, in order to ‘re-grow’ the damaged part of their bodies. Reprogramming of cells to be able to become many kinds of cells is an area of research with a lot of promise for medicine. The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology this year was awarded for key research enabling reprogramming of cells. […]