Source: Agencies | 2012-10-9 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
Shinya Yamanaka / John Gurdon
BRITAIN'S John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan have won this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering that mature, specialized cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells - a discovery 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 had "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Gurdon showed in 1962 - the year Yamanaka was born - that DNA from specialized cells of frogs, such as skin or intestinal cells, could be used to generate new tadpoles.
In 1997, the cloning of Dolly the sheep by other scientists showed that the same process Gurdon discovered in frogs would work in mammals.
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.
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 that didn't destroy 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 using Yamanaka's approach turned skin cells from mice into eggs that produced baby mice.
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. Yamanaka, 50, worked at the Gladstone Institute in San Francisco and Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan.
The first Japanese scientist to win the Nobel medicine award since 1987 is currently at Kyoto University and affiliated with the Gladstone Institute.
"From now on, I'd like to make a contribution to society in a real sense. I feel a great sense of responsibility," Yamanaka told reporters in Japan.
Prize committee member Juleen Zierath said Gurdon and Yamanaka's discoveries 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 were 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."
The reprogramming allows scientists to create particular kinds of tissue they want to study, like lung tissue for studying cystic fibrosis, or brain tissue for Huntington's disease. By reprogramming cells from patients with a particular disease, they can create new tissue with the same genetic background, and study it in the lab.
Goran Hansson, secretary of the prize committee, said he had reached both winners by phone before the announcement. He said they were looking forward to coming to Stockholm to collect the 8 million kronor (US$1.2 million) award on December 10.
The medicine award was the first to be announced this year. The physics award will be announced today, followed by chemistry tomorrow, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize will be announced on October 15.