The Nobel Assembly jointly awarded John Gurden of Great Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine today. The award, for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to differentiate into many types of basic cells, recognizes the complementary research of both scientists working independently of one another, with almost half a century between their respective discoveries.
Gurden, famous for pioneering the cloning technique that eventually brought us Dolly, turned the scientific world on its head when in 1962 he announced that he had been able to produce functioning tadpoles from mature frog cells. Previously, scientists thought that it was impossible for adult cells to travel backward to a state of immaturity following specialization. After destroying the nucleus of a frog egg, Gurden and his team implanted a fully differentiated intestinal cell nucleus from a tadpole in its place, producing a clone and changing the way we understand the cell specialization process.
More than 40 years later Yamanaka found a way to reprogram the genes of adult cells to behave like undifferentiated stem cells, terming the new cells “induced pluripotent stem cells,” or iPS cells. Instead of implanting a cell nucleus, Yamanaka inserted four genes into the nucleus of an adult mouse skin cell, a process he duplicated with human skin cells a year later. The result was a method of creating stem cells without destroying human embryos, minimizing the ethical quandaries associated with stem cell research.
Though the discovery is a long way off from being translated into treatment, it greatly expands the potential for research into degenerative disorders, particularly Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.