A Japanese researcher with ties to the Bay Area joined a British researcher as winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for discovering that ordinary cells can be turned into stem cells, capable of building any kind of tissue -- a discovery likely to lead to new treatments.
Scientists are already building on the work by John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, who leads a research team at UC San Francisco, creating "disease in a dish" models of illnesses like Parkinson's and diabetes to test drugs. Someday they hope to build custom-made tissue for repair or replacement.
Yamanaka's work has transformed stem cell research because his technique bypasses the use of human embryos, a practice slowed by ethical, political, funding and logistical controversy. Now virtually all stem cell research uses his technique, and the field is developing quickly.
In announcing the $1.2 million award, the Nobel committee at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute said the discovery has "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Yamanaka looks forward to even stronger interest in building on the discoveries. "The best part about this prize is that it will bring attention to -- and will likely spur -- the important stem cell work that scientists around the world are conducting," Yamanaka said in a statement released by UCSF. "This technology is for patients, and the more scientists who build on it, the faster we can help those who live with chronic or life-threatening diseases."
Gurdon's and Yamanaka's experiments took place more than 40 years apart.
Gurdon showed in 1962 -- the year Yamanaka was born -- that adult cells contain all the genetic information needed to create other tissues in the body. Specifically, he found that the DNA from frogs' skin or intestinal cells could be used to generate new tadpoles.
At the time, the discovery had "no obvious therapeutic benefit at all," Gurdon told reporters in London. "It was almost 50 years before the value -- the potential value -- of that basic scientific research comes to light."
In 2006, Yamanaka showed how to flick the switch, inducing these adult cells to change. His surprisingly simple recipe, using just four key genes, turned back the clock on mature cells so they became more primitive, then could be nudged into becoming something new -- say, heart or brain cells.
The primitive cells behave a lot like embryonic stem cells -- and don't require destroying embryos to collect the stem cells.
In fact, they are superior to embryonic stem cells because they can be extracted from a sick patient's own body -- so any new cells are tailor-made to that patient.
This is ushering in the era of "personalized medicine." Someday, scientists hope, it will be possible to first test a drug on cells in a dish, not a person. Or if sick person needs replacement cells due to destructive diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's, the body will not reject new cells created from its own tissues.
Yamanaka was a young Ph.D. and physician and when he came to San Francisco in 1993. He had applied to 50 U.S. research programs -- but only the Gladstone Institutes accepted him. After several setbacks, his heart disease work led to stem cell research.
The 50-year-old scientist -- whose wife is a physician and whose two daughters are in medical school -- splits his time between San Francisco and Kyoto. In San Francisco, he is a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, which is affiliated with the University of California. In Japan, he directs the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application and is an investigator at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, both at Kyoto University.
Gurdon, 79, has been a professor of cell biology at Cambridge University's Magdalene College and is at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which he founded.
The medicine award was the first Nobel Prize to be announced this year. The physics award will be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize will be announced on Oct. 15. All prizes will be awarded on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
Associated Press writer Malcolm Ritter contributed to this report.
Researchers John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka on Monday shared a Nobel Prize for their research in reprogramming cells. Many scientists built on Gurdon's work in the pursuit of curing diseases and perhaps one day generating replacement organs for humans.
Source: Gladstone Institutes