This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine was given to two men who made huge advances in cell reprogramming. In 1962, Sir John B. Gurdon discovered that when the immature nucleus of a frog egg cell is replaced with a nucleus from an adult intestinal cell, the egg cell will still go on to develop into a normal tadpole. This showed that it was in fact possible for cells to travel backward in the developmental timeline. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka created induced pluripotent stem (or iPS) cells by taking adult cells and adding a combination of 4 genes to return them to an undifferentiated, stem cell-like state. They can then differentiate into any kind of cell (hence “pluripotent”) such as skin or nerve cells.
iPS cells are a huge breakthrough with vast possibilities for disease therapy. They avoid 2 pitfalls of “traditional” embryonic stem cell therapies: no embryos need be created/destroyed, and there is less chance for immune rejection of implanted iPS cells because they can come from the patient’s own body.
I think many people expected that Yamanaka would win the Nobel for this eventually, but maybe not so soon! This research was only published 6 years ago.
Here’s the official press release: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2012/press.html
This announcement is a little personal for me, because my research derives directly from the Yamanaka lab’s work on reprogramming. We are one of many labs now investigating the use of induced stem cells to treat heart disease. By injecting reprogrammed cells into a diseased heart, we hope to stimulate growth of new blood vessels to ameliorate the effects of a heart attack (a blocked coronary vessel), or to grow new healthy muscle tissue after a heart attack has caused damage. There are many angles from which to approach this aim, and the field is really in its infancy. We have seen promising preliminary studies, but this is only the beginning. It will require many years of work, but we may someday have a cure (or at least an effective treatment) for heart disease…and many other diseases as well!