Shinya Yamanaka wins 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine with John B. Gurdon

I was going to write up my Grassroots Summit post, but earlier this week, some exciting news came in the form of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Sir John B. Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka received this year’s prize for their discovery of a specialized cell’s ability to be reprogrammed into an immature state that allows it to develop into different tissues. This concept, known as pluripotency, is a major component in stem cell research.

Sir Gurdon is a developmental biologist at Cambridge (where he has an institute named after him). When he was at Oxford in 1962, he replaced the nucleus of a frog egg cell with one from a tadpole’s intestinal cell. The egg developed into a cloned tadpole. Even though the intestinal cell was mature (meaning that it developed specialized functions), the D.N.A. in the nucleus still contained information needed for an egg to develop into a tadpole. Prior to his discovery, biologists believed that mature cells could not go back to their pluripotent state and become other types of cells.

Forty years later, Dr. Yamanaka of Kyoto University took Sir Gurdon’s research a step further by studying genes that kept a cell in the immature pluripotent state. He introduced these genes into mature tissue cells, and he found that a combination of four of them reversed the cells’ state. His lab created what is known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These cells could be the alternative to stem cells from embryos for research and therapeutic purposes.

Dr. Yamanaka has won many awards including for his research, including the 2010 Balzan Prize and the 2012 Millennium Technology Prize. Time Magazine also deemed him a “Person Who Mattered” in its 2007 Person of the Year issue. He is the director of the Center for iPS Research and Application at Kyoto University and runs marathons in his spare time.

Congratulations to both Sir Gurdon and Dr. Yamanaka! For more info on their contributions, check out the official press release.

Listening to: “Hakuro” by Gackt

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