- Associated Press - Monday, October 8, 2012

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Researchers John Gurdon of Great Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have won this year’s Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells — a discovery that scientists hope to turn into new treatments.

Scientists want to harness that reprogramming to create replacement tissues for treating diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes, and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory.

The prize committee at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute said the discovery has “revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.”

Mr. Gurdon showed in 1962 — the year Mr.  Yamanaka was born — that the DNA from specialized cells of frogs, such as 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.

In 1997, the cloning of Dolly the sheep by other scientists showed that the same process Mr. Gurdon discovered in frogs would work in mammals.

More than 40 years after Mr. Gurdon’s discovery, in 2006, Mr. 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. Mr. Yamanaka’s method provided a way to get such primitive cells without destroying embryos.

“The discoveries of Gurdon and Yamanaka have shown that specialized cells can turn back the developmental clock under certain circumstances,” the committee said. “These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine.”

Just last week, Japanese scientists reported using Mr. Yamanaka’s approach to turn skin cells from mice into eggs that produced baby mice.

Mr. Gurdon, 79, has served as a professor of cell biology at Cambridge University’s Magdalene College and is currently at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which he founded. Mr. Yamanaka, 50, worked at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco and Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan. He is currently at Kyoto University and also affiliated with the Gladstone Institute. Mr. Yamanaka is the first Japanese scientist to win the Nobel medicine award since 1987.

“From now on, I’d like to make a contribution to society in a real sense. I feel a great sense of responsibility,” Mr. Yamanaka said at a news conference in Japan. “I want to use our medical breakthrough for medical purposes.”

Choosing Mr. Yamanaka as a Nobel winner just six years after his discovery was unusual. The Nobel committees typically reward research done more than a decade ago, to make sure it has stood the test of time.

In 2010, the Nobel Prize in physics went to two researchers whose discoveries were also published six years earlier. In 2006, two American scientists won the medicine prize eight years after their work was published.

Prize committee member Juleen Zierath said Mr. Gurdon’s and Mr. Yamanaka’s discoveries, which also earned them a Lasker award for basic research in 2009, could hold “immense potential,” including in developing treatments for Parkinson’s disease and in making cells that produce insulin. However, she added that therapeutic implications are still far away.

The idea of reprogramming cells has also been put to work in basic research on disease, through an approach sometimes called “disease in a dish.”

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