The 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given out today for “the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent". You may be asking yourself “what the what is pluripotent?” and wondering whether that will ever translate into anything useful to you. Believe me, their work is seminal in the field of tissue engineering. But in addition it is a great lesson in perseverance that every person should know about.
What the research says:
Today’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to two scientists: Drs. John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. Both are world-renowned scientists in the fields of cloning and biology. If you’re wondering what exactly they discovered, the technically-precise answer is they discovered “that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. In layman’s terms, their research showed that mature cells, when manipulated in a specific way, can be made to act as immature cells of different tissue types. For example, mature skin cells could be turned into immature liver cells or kidney cells. Why is that novel? Typically, mature cells are like senior citizens who are scientifically set in their ways. Just like the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, mature skin cells can’t easily be convinced to behave as a different cell type. They are what they are, they do what they do, and they have a limited lifespan.
So imagine the potential of having mature cells convert back into immature cells that are capable of becoming anything? That was the discovery of Drs. Gurdon and Yamanaka. Their research proved that DNA from mature cells, when in the right environment, could convince the cell that it is a stem cell. And creating the right environment could be as simple as injecting four proteins (known as transcription factors) into the mature cell.
Why is that important? Only stem cells have limitless potential. Or at least that was the widely-held belief. But the discovery that mature differentiated cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent means we have the potential of using your skin cells to make a new kidney or new muscle or any new tissue. And those tissues would have your DNA and would pose no immune risk.
Why did the award go to two people? Dr. Gurdon discovered that mature cells had this potential in the 1960’s but didn’t know exactly what was needed to make it happen. In 2006, Dr. Yamanaka discovered exactly which proteins were needed to create that potential. And the combination of their two discoveries is what is magical.
Why is this so inspiring?
Let’s be honest. Many people have won Nobel Prizes. To be exact, 853 people and organizations have been awarded the prize. And although intriguing, I never thought of the winners as inspiring. Until now. Both of these Novel Prize winners are world-renowned scientists. But perhaps more importantly, they both have persevered through moments of failure early in their careers.
“I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous. If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him”. That’s a quote from Dr. Gurdon’s high school biology teacher. Definitely not the inspirational feedback that you would expect a teacher to provide for his students. And yet Dr. Gurdon persisted and persevered. According to the New York Times, he was “spurred by a fascination with the color patterns on the wings of butterflies and moths” and in 1956 he was accepted for graduate work in the embryology department at Oxford University. There, under the tutelage of a supportive advisor, he went on to receive a Doctor of Philosophy, and eventually became a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge. He worked for decades in the areas of cloning and DNA transplantation. In fact, the famous Dolly sheep cloning study was an extension of an earlier study done by Dr. Gurdon using frog embryos.
Dr. Yamanaka followed a different path to fame. He received an MD from Kobe University and a PhD from Osaka City University Graduate School. After training to become an orthopaedic surgeon, he came to a startling decision. He decided to leave medicine because, as he said, “I learned I was not talented”. So he decided to become researcher, and the rest (as they say) is history.