Nobel prize-winners announced

It was today announced that Professor Shinya Yamanaka, of Japan’s Osaka prefecture, has won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in developing iPS (or induced pluripotent stem) cells. He shares the prize with British scientist Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University. The duo will also share the 8 million Swedish kronor (95 million Japanese yen, £756,185) prize money which they will receive in a ceremony in December.

The Swedish Karolinska Institute announced that Yamanaka, 50, won the prize for his 2006 research into technology that can reprogram mature cells into immature cells, which can then develop into many different types of cell in the body. He successfully generated human iPS cells in 2007. Gurdon, 79, was awarded the prize for his research conducted in 1962, in which he experimented with cloning frogs and found that the mature cell has all the genetic information required to make all the cells in a frog. Before the ground-breaking work of these two scientists, it had been supposed that once cells had matured they were irreversibly committed to their specialism. The research of Yamanaka and Gurdon has since proved that cells can be reprogrammed to create many different tissue types.

It is thought that the versatility of iPS cells and their great capacity for multiplication could be extremely useful in the development of regenerative medicine to replace tissue damaged through injury or illness, including Parkinson’s disease. The cells can replenish every type of body cell apart from those in the placenta.

After graduating from Kobe University School of Medicine, Yamanaka, who was born in the same year that Gurdon’s prize-winning research took place, worked at Osaka City University Medical School, then as a professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology. He is the second Japanese scientist to win the Noble Physiology or Medicine prize, following Susumu Tonegawa, now 73, who was awarded it in 1987 for his work in immunology. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John Gurdon first studied at Eton college where, he recalls, a teacher once called his dreams of becoming a scientist “a waste of time”. He went on to study at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he began reading Classics but quickly switched to Zoology, and later worked at Cambridge University where he conducted most of his research.

Professor Yamanaka said it was a “tremendous honour” to receive the Nobel prize and said of Gurdon, “I am able to receive this award because of [him].” In a statement the Nobel Assembly in Sweden said that the two scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”, adding, “these discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine.” Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at Oxford University also praised the scientists ethical attitude to their research. “Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically”, he said. “Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all.” Prof Yamanaka, who started his career as a surgeon, has certainly demonstrated a patient-centric attitude in his work: “My goal, all my life” he said, “is to bring this stem cell technology to the bedside, to patients, to clinic.” If only there were also a Nobel Prize for Ethics…

Sources include: BBC News, The Guardian, Daily Yomiuri

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