NEW YORK – Two scientists from different generations won the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for the groundbreaking discovery that cells in the body can be reprogrammed into completely different kinds, work that reflects the mechanism behind cloning and offers an alternative to using embryonic stem cells.
The work of British researcher John Gurdon and Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka – who was born the year Gurdon made his discovery – holds hope for treating diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes by growing customized tissue for transplant.
And it has spurred a new generation of laboratory studies into other illnesses, including schizophrenia, which may lead to new treatments.
Basically, Gurdon, 79, and Yamanaka, 50, showed how to make the equivalent of embryonic stem cells without the ethical questions those versatile cells pose, a promise scientists are now scrambling to fulfill.
Once created, these “blank slate” cells can be nudged toward developing into other cell types. Skin cells can ultimately be transformed into brain cells, for example. Just last week, scientists reported turning skin cells from mice into eggs that produced baby mice, a possible step toward new fertility treatments.
Gurdon and Yamanaka performed “courageous experiments” that challenged scientific opinion, said Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
“Their work shows ... that while cells might be specialized to do one thing, they have the potential to do something else,” Melton said. It “really lays the groundwork for all the excitement about stem cell biology.”
The idea of reprograming cells has 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. That can give new insights into the roots of the problem.
In addition, that approach allows them to screen drugs in the lab for possible new medicines.