October 11, 2012
Adult Stem Cell Researchers Win Nobel Medicine Prize
"We can’t keep destroying embryos for our research," said Shinya Yamanaka of his motivation.
The Nobel Assembly has awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, researchers who discovered a way to develop stem cells from adult skin cells—thus removing the need to use and destroy human embryos.
The Nobel Assembly states that Gurdon and Yamanaka's discovery revolutionizes "the dogma" that stem cells could only be derived from immature cells, such as those of human embryos.
The pair jointly received the prize for their "discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent." These pluripotent cells are able to develop into any tissue of the human body.
Embryonic stem-cell research "has long been controversial—which is one reason why Yamanaka's discovery of an alternate way to obtain human stem cells, without the use of embryos, is so important."
Pro-life groups such as National Right to Life are trumpeting the award, lauding the discovery as the "ethically acceptable (and far more promising) alternative to harvesting stem cells from human embryos."
But the "paradigm-shifting discovery" is almost 40 years in the making. In 1962, Gurdon, a British researcher, discovered that mature "specialized" cells can reverse themselves, still containing all the necessary information to develop all immature cells. In 2006, Yamanaka, a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, reprogrammed the first adult cells to become immature human stem cells.
In 2007, Yamanaka told the New York Times he was inspired to pursue alternatives to embryonic stem-cell research when he was invited to view a stored human embryo during a visit to a friend's fertility clinic.
“I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research," he said. "There must be another way.”