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Biological Chemistry

John Gurdon And Shinya Yamanaka Share 2012 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine

Awards: Researchers split prize for their work on cellular reprogramming

by Sarah Everts
October 8, 2012

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Gurdon
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For discovering that a cell’s fate is not set in stone, John B. Gurdon, 79, and Shinya Yamanaka, 50, will share the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Gurdon and Yamanaka’s work showed that cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent—that is, capable of turning into any kind of cell in the body.

The discovery revolutionized developmental biology and created new ways to study the onset of disease, and it now paves the way for therapies to combat a wide variety of diseases, said Göran K. Hansson, secretary of the Nobel Committee, at the Oct. 8 press conference announcing the winners.

Yamanaka, a stem cell researcher at Japan’s Kyoto University and San Francisco’s Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease was “doing some housework” when his secretary called to tip him off that the Nobel Prize committee was trying to reach him, he said in an interview with

Credit: Gladstone Institutes
Photo of Yamanaka
Credit: Gladstone Institutes

Winning the Nobel Prize is “a tremendous honor, especially since I heard I share the prize with John Gurdon,” Yamanaka said. “I was able to initiate my project because of his experiments 50 years ago. Actually he published his work in 1962—that’s the year I was born.”

In 1962, Gurdon, a developmental biologist at Cambridge University, published the results of an experiment in which he removed the nucleus from a frog embryo and replaced it with the nucleus from a tadpole’s intestinal cell (J. Embryol. Exp. Morphol.,1962,10, 622). The modified embryo turned into a normal tadpole, showing that the genome—even from a differentiated cell—holds all of the information required for an organism to develop. Gurdon’s discovery also paved the way for animal cloning.

Some 40 years later, Yamanaka was the first to turn a mouse skin cell into a pluripotent stem cell, capable of turning into any kind of cell (Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2006.07.024). In particular, Yamanaka showed that activating just four genes could reprogram such a differentiated cell into a pluripotent one.

“Thanks to these two researchers, [we know that] development is not strictly a one-way street,” said Thomas Perlmann, a developmental biologist who sits on the 2012 Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine.

The discoveries of Yamanaka and Gurdon “revolutionized regenerative medicine,” comments Ian Wilmut, who works in cell reprogramming at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland. One practical application of cellular reprogramming is in studies of disease development in organs from which “you can’t take significant biopsies,” such as from the heart or the brain, Wilmut says. By reprogramming skin cells into more primitive cells, and then differentiating them into brain or heart cells, researchers can observe the onset of disease, discover its molecular mechanisms, and screen for potential drugs to treat or prevent the disease.

In recent years, chemists have been learning how to reprogram cells with small molecules instead of genetic engineering. They hope that small molecules may one day induce a skin cell to reprogram into a dopamine-producing neuron to help cure Parkinson’s disease or into an insulin-producing cell to help patients with diabetes.

Yamanaka’s biggest hope is that the cell-reprogramming field will help sick people. “I started my career as a surgeon, but it turns out I am not talented as a surgeon,” he said. Although he became a clinical scientist, “I still feel like a doctor,” Yamanaka said. “I want to help as many patients as possible.”

Read the more at this related CENtral Science Blog:

Gurdon and Yamanaka share Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012



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