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What Gurdon and Yamanaka's Nobel Prize means to the stem cell community

15 October 2012
By Dr Dusko Ilic
Senior lecturer in stem cell science, King's College London
Appeared in BioNews 677

It took 50 years for the Nobel committee to acknowledge one of the key developments in biology.

A nucleus from a tadpole's somatic cell transferred into a frog's egg resulted in development of a normal tadpole (1); this was the first clone ever made in a laboratory, way back in 1962, and Professor Sir John Gurdon was the visionary scientist behind it.

Professor Shinya Yamanaka's work on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells was embraced and recognised by the scientific community much more rapidly. It took him only six years to become a Nobel laureate after, in 2006, he identified four genes that are responsible for keeping cells in a pluripotent state and used them to revert fibroblasts (a type of skin cell) from an adult mouse into an embryonic-like state (2). Every scientist who works in the stem cell field had no doubt that Yamanaka would eventually win the Nobel prize and I can assure you that all of us were delighted that it happened sooner rather than later.

Since Yamanaka's first report in 2006, cell reprogramming technology has moved forward with almost unbelievable speed. Only a year after the initial discovery using a mouse system, Yamanaka and Professor James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin, independently demonstrated that the approach works in human cells too (3,4). The same year, Yamanaka also showed that new animals (mice) can be generated from iPS cells, and that those mice are fertile and capable of producing healthy pups (5).

The power of this new technology lies not only in cloning a whole organism but also in its potential for personalised therapy. Only a year after Yamanaka's discovery, Professor Rudolf Jaenisch's group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated that by using iPS cells in combination with gene therapy it might be possible to remedy otherwise incurable genetic diseases (6).

In Jaenisch's experiments mice carrying the mutation for sickle cell anaemia were successfully treated with iPS cells generated from their own skin. Before being used for treatment, the iPS cells had the mutation corrected using gene recombination technology. The cells were then differentiated into hematopoietic cells and injected back into the animals. Already in 2009, a similar approach has been used experimentally against another devastating disease, Fanconi anemia, in a human in vitro system (7).

Given the various legitimate and less legitimate safety concerns, the most prominent role for iPS cells at the moment seems not to be in cloning or therapy but in drug discovery and toxicity testing. Among the first researchers, paving a way for this trend, was Professor Lorenz Studer from the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York (8). His group demonstrated how iPS cells could be used to produce cell models for rare diseases and to validate the potency of candidate drugs.

However, in spite of a great deal of scepticism, iPS cells are heading towards clinical trials in Japan (9). The Nobel Prize will certainly give a tremendous boost to the Japanese teams working toward this goal. The stakes are higher than ever before; it will almost be a question of national pride to make iPS cell-based therapy work in the clinic. In any case, when these trials get underway, a new era for stem cell research will begin.

15 July 2013 - by Professor John Galloway 
It is not given to many to overturn a central dogma of scientific faith. But last year, John Gurdon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for doing it...
4 February 2013 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
Shortly after being awarded the 2012 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, Professor Sir John Gurdon was interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Life Scientific'...
8 October 2012 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Professor Sir John Gurdon of the University of Cambridge has been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on stem cells. He shares the prize for medicine or physiology with Professor Shinya Yamanaka from Japan...
24 September 2012 - by James Brooks 
The biological basis of a rare congenital disorder has been clarified, thanks to stem cell technology. The researchers say their work shows how advances in stem cell science can provide insights into genetic conditions...
31 January 2012 - by Dr Dusko Ilic 
In the last few months of 2011, a couple of stories on human embryonic stem cells hit the headlines. Both were bad news for stem cell researchers...
22 September 2008 - by Ben Jones 
The Japanese Patent Office has granted the first patent for induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) to Kyoto University, where researcher Shinya Yamanaka produced both the first non-human iPS cells in 2006 and, using the same process, the first human iPS cells in 2007.The Japanese patent...
Comment ( - 15/10/2012)
I believe adult stem cell treatments are the way forward, as many trials dont even reach the end of stage 1 before the subjects are fully cured or at least show results which are generally not expected until the later part of stage 3 , also there is a lot less problems as they are using your own stem cells, not anyone else's. My Mother is 71, she lives in New Zealand, where she just had a adult stem cell transplant preformed only a few months a go, under the not for profit adult stemcell foundation org, she has been so impressed with the results that she learned how to start her own blog about it which has now morphed in to a full website with 'plain English' versions of the latest adult stem cell news, along with videos and explanations etc
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