The first of this year's Nobel Prizes, in medicine, were announced: John Gurdon of Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have been honored "for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells," the CBC reports:
Scientists want to harness the reprogramming to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson's and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory. The prize committee at Stockholm's Karonlinska institute said the discovery has "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Gurdon showed in 1962 that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, like skin or intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles. That showed the DNA still had its ability to drive the formation of all cells of the body. More than 40 years later, in 2006, Yamanaka showed that a surprisingly simple recipe could turn mature cells back into primitive cells, which in turn could be prodded into different kinds of mature cells.
Basically, the primitive cells were the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, which had been embroiled in controversy because to get human embryonic cells, human embryos had to be destroyed. Yamanaka's method provided a way to get such primitive cells without destroying embryos.This is indeed good news on many fronts, and that human embryos do not have to be destroyed to advance science in general and human medicine in particular should please conservative and religious groups. The prize in medicine is the first of five to be announced this week; the prize in economics will be announced on October 15. All prizes will be handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death (in 1896).