Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology – experts respond

Expert reaction to Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology awarded to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka

The comments below were gathered by our colleagues at the UK SMC. The official Nobel announcement is here.

Sir John Gurdon, Distinguished Group Leader, Wellcome Trust/CRUK Gurdon Institute, Cambridge University, said:


“I am immensely honoured to be awarded this spectacular recognition, and delighted to be due to receive it with Shinya Yamanaka, whose work has brought the whole field within the realistic expectation of therapeutic benefits.

“I am of course most enormously grateful to those colleagues who have worked with me, at various times over the last half century.

“It is particularly pleasing to see how purely basic research, originally aimed at testing the genetic identity of different cell types in the body, has turned out to have clear human health prospects.”

Sir Martin Evans, Chancellor, Cardiff University, & Nobel Prize winner in 2007 for stem cell research, said:

“I am absolutely delighted to hear of the award of this year’s Nobel Prize to John Gurdon and to Shinya Yamanaka.

“John’s studies on reprogramming of nuclei from differentiated cells by nuclear transplantation in the frog Xenopus were fundamentally important, providing the base for all of our modern studies of the molecular biology of development of multicellular organisms. He has, moreover, continued fundamental studies of the mechanism of reprogramming of nuclei by egg cytoplasm.

“Shinya Yamanaka’s breakthrough was an unexpected technological feat showing that the function of the nucleus in a specialised (differentiated) cell could be reprogrammed and the cell changed into an undifferentiated embryonic stem cell by the addition of no more than four specific molecules. These molecules were factors controlling molecular “readout” from the genes in the cell – transcription factors.

“The practical outcome is that now we not only know that it might be theoretically possible to convert one cell type into another but it is also practically possible.

“These are very important foundation studies for future cellular therapies in medicine.”

Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, which has funded Sir John Gurdon for more than 20 years, said:

“John Gurdon’s life has been spent in biology, from collecting insects as a child to over 50 years at the laboratory bench. He and Shinya Yamanaka have demonstrated conclusively that it is possible to turn back the clock on adult cells, to create all the specialised cell types in the body. Their work has created the field of regenerative medicine, which has the potential to transform the lives of patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s, stroke and diabetes. It has also created an important ethical discussion for society about the potential uses and abuses of stem cell therapies. This is a wonderfully well-deserved Nobel Prize.”

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, Head of Developmental Genetics, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said:

“John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka are both very deserving of the Nobel Prize, and I am delighted that two such great individuals have been recognised in this way. By showing that cells from animals can be reprogrammed back into cells equivalent of those in the early embryo, they also succeeded in reprogramming the minds of scientists used to thinking that the processes of development and cell differentiation can only go one way, from immature to specialised.

“Before John Gurdon carried out his now classic experiments, it was not known whether DNA, the blueprint for development, was lost or altered as the embryo becomes more complex from the single cell of the fertilized egg to the adult, with many hundreds of different specialised cell types. Working with frogs, he showed that it was possible to transfer the nucleus from, e.g. a gut cell, and transfer this into an enucleated egg, and obtain live tadpoles. This could not have happened if there had been irreversible changes in the DNA. This ability to “clone” animals from a single specialised cell has now been shown possible with many animals, including mammals.

“This process of reprogramming could have been very complex as the egg contains many factors, and it was not known how many of these are required to establish the early embryonic state and confer the potential to make any cell type within the body (pluripotency). In fact, work from a number of labs showed that there were indeed many factors essential for pluripotency in the embryo or in embryonic stem cells. Shinya Yamanaka’s experiments surprised everyone by revealing that a specialised cell can be reprogrammed back to a pluripotent state with just 3 or 4 of these. These factors, Oct4, Sox2 and Klf4 (with Myc helping to increase efficiency) turned out to be sufficient to override any other programme operating in a specialised cell, and to establish pluripotency.

“Gurdon and Yamanaka applied clear logic in the design of their experiments, and skill to perform them, but it also took great courage to challenge dogma. Paradigm shifts are rare in science, but these are two great examples.

“Their work is of great importance for gaining fundamental insight into how cells establish a particular differentiated state and how this can be reprogrammed either back to pluripotency, or more directly from one specialised cell to another. By reprogramming cells from patients, it is of practical importance to allow human genetic diseases to be studied in the lab. And potentially it may allow cell based treatments, where the patients’ own cells could be used to replace others lost through disease or trauma.”

Sir William Castell, Chairman of the Wellcome Trust, said:

“We are delighted that Sir John Gurdon, a former governor of the Wellcome Trust, whose work we have supported for over twenty years, has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This is a great day for John Gurdon, a great day for British science and a great day for the ethos of blue skies research.

“John’s seminal work, which was carried out in the 1960s, showing that is possible to reprogramme a mature frog cell into a nonspecialised, immature cell, was both counterintuitive and with no conceivable application at the time. Yet it now underpins all of regenerative medicine, an area in which the UK remains at the cutting edge. His recognition by the Nobel Prize is very well deserved.

“The Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge, named in honour of John, is incredibly influential in the fields of cancer and developmental biology. The philosophy there, very much instilled by John himself, is inclusive, open and democratic, with a focus on basic research. Thanks to the direction of John and his colleagues, Gurdon scientists are free to be themselves, enjoy their work and concentrate on what really matters – the research. This ethos also reached out and influenced the Wellcome Trust, where he was a governor from 1995 to 2000.”

Prof Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said:

“Prof Gurdon’s work in frogs demonstrated that adult cells could be introduced into an egg and that it could still form into a fully functional tadpole and frog. This fundamental biology discovery overturned years of previous theory and laid the foundation for current exciting research in induced pluripiotent stem cells (iPS). Although iPS research still has some way to go it offers tantalising and exciting possibilities for improving human health.

“I am very pleased to welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision and warmly congratulate Prof Gurdon on his award and his achievements. Recognition like this demonstrates the strength of UK life science research and the vital place of fundamental biology in driving progress in a wide range of fields.”

Dr Adam Benham, Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, said:

“This is an exciting and deserved award for work that has transformed our understanding of how cells work. The ability to change one cell type into another has great potential to benefit human health through the application of regenerative medicine.”

Prof Sir John Burn, Professor of Clinical Genetics, Newcastle University, said:

“I am delighted to hear that doctors Gurdon and Yamanaka have been recognised. Stem cell research holds great promise and their demonstration that mature cells could be persuaded to revert to a pluripotent state was a real game changer.”

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, said:

“I was delighted to learn that John Gurdon shares this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Shinya Yamanaka. John’s work has changed the way we understand how cells in the body become specialised, paving the way for important developments in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. It’s very pleasing to see another of the Royal Society’s Fellows being recognised in this very special way. My congratulations go out to both John and Shinya.”

Prof Chris Shaw, Professor of Neurology and Neurogenetics, King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, said:

“Gurdon and Yamanaka have given us the most extraordinary gifts; reprogrammed cells that can be used to understand the mechanisms operating during development and disease. They can be used in drug discovery or to replace tissues and even whole organs. They have transformed our ability to explore cell biology and are worthy Prize winners.”

Prof Charles ffrench-Constant, Director MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“I am absolutely delighted that the opportunities offered by the spectacular scientific advance of cellular reprogramming have been recognised by the Nobel Prize committee. I offer Shinya and John my well-deserved congratulations.”

Professor Anthony Hollander, Head of Cellular & Molecular Medicine, University of Bristol, said:

“This joint Nobel Prize traces and celebrates the wonderful scientific journey from John Gurdon’s pioneering early work to the sensational discovery of somatic cell reprogramming by Shinya Yamanaka. Its fantastic news for stem cell research and for UK Science.”

Dr Kieran Breen, Director of Research & Innovation at Parkinson’s UK, said:

“The discovery that we can send adult cells back to a stem cell-like state has immense potential for understanding and curing neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s.

“Researchers can turn skin cells from people with Parkinson’s into brain cells that are almost identical to those lost in the condition.

“This means we now have a window into the Parkinson’s brain – allowing us to study these precious cells at close quarters, work out why they stop working and die, and testing new ideas and treatments.

“Being able to grow healthy new nerve cells from our own skin could also provide the best possible source of tissue for transplants that one day help us repair the Parkinson’s brain.

“These breakthroughs will ultimately lead to new and better treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s and improve the lives of millions of people around the world.”

Dr Tom Douglas, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford, said:

“This is a rare example of a scientific discovery that may solve more ethical problems than it creates. Many ethical objections to stem cell research have focused on the need to destroy human embryos. iPS cell technology may ultimately enable scientists to evade these objections by deriving pluripotent stem cells from adult tissue. For the moment, though, iPS cell research will need to run parallel to research with embryonic stem cells.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, University of Oxford and Director Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said:

“This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.

“Before Yamanaka’s breakthrough, which built on Gurdon’s work, this research could only be done on cells derived from live human embryos. Many people objected to the creation of embryos for research, describing it as cannabalizing human beings. They even objected to the use of embryos no longer required for IVF. This led GW Bush to introduce laws that retarded the field for years. Yamanaka was able to overcome all those objections and resuscitate the field.

“Yamanaka has opened the door to a completely new kind of medicine: regenerative medicine. Until now, dead or damaged tissue and organs, for example in the brain or heart, have been replaced by scar tissue. This results in loss of function, such as inability to talk or walk after a stroke, or heart failure after a heart attack. Regenerative medicine offers the prospect of replacing dead or damaged human parts with new functioning ones. It also opens a radically new way of studying the origin of disease: by creating tissue with disease, it can be experimented on in the laboratory, instead of in humans and animals. This is good for humans and good for non-human animals used in experiments.

“This is as significant at the discovery of antibiotics. Given the millions, or more lives, which could be saved, this is a truly momentous award.”

Prof John Hardy, Professor of Neuroscience, University College London, said:

“I think everyone who works on developmental biology and on the understanding of disease mechanisms will applaud these excellent and clear choices for the Nobel prizes. Countless labs’ work build on the breakthroughs they have pioneered.”

Dr Emma Lane, President of the Network of European CNS Transplantation and Restoration (NECTAR) and Lecturer in Pharmacology at the Welsh School of Pharmacy, said:

“This discovery has been hugely influential in both the understanding of the mechanisms that cause disease and furthering the potential for new cell-based therapeutic interventions, the repair of organs that have been devastated by disease, tailored to groups of patients or individuals. The significance of this discovery is hard to put into words because it has already developed science exponentially since their original work and will continue to have an unquantifiable effect on the progress of both science and medicine in the future.”