Nobel Prizes Honor Stem Cell and Cell Signaling Pioneers

October 11, 2012
Amy Ritter, PhD

Amy Ritter was Scientific Editor, BioPharm International.

he Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was shared by two researchers: Sir John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom; and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan and the Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, CA, “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.”

The Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was shared by two researchers: Sir John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom; and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan and the Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, CA, “for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.” Gurdon was the first to demonstrate this property through a technique called nuclear transfer. In experiments published in 1962, he showed that transplanting the nucleus of a cell from a tadpole’s intestine into an enucleated frog egg resulted in reprogramming of the fully-differentiated nucleus (1). The transplanted nucleus behaved like a fertilized egg, differentiated into all the tissues an oocyte would normally produce, and generated a tadpole. At the time, cell differentiation was viewed as a one-way street, and Gurdon’s demonstration that it could be completely reversed changed the way scientists viewed cell determination and differentiation. Work in his laboratory continues to focus on identifying the factors within the egg that enable this transformation.

Yamanaka’s seminal work was in the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells. In 2006, he and his coworker demonstrated that introducing genes for four transcription factors into an adult skin cell was sufficient to turn it into a stem cell capable of differentiating into multiple tissue types (2). Being able to reprogram adult cells has fueled the field of regenerative medicine, because it offers an avenue to create new tissues for disease research or therapy without the ethical concerns facing embryonic stem cells.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by Brian Kobilka at Stanford University School of Medicine in California and Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.” G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) are a large class of membrane-spanning receptors that include those for many hormones and neurotransmitters, such as adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. Around 30% of drugs on the market target GPCRs, making the study of their structure and function important for drug developers as well as physiologists. Kobilka continues to study the structural basis for the functional properties of GPCRs, while work in Lefkowitz’s laboratory is aimed at understanding pathways by which GPCR function can be modulated.

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