Remember all the fuss about embryonic stem cells? About how the only way to offer hope to millions of people suffering from a plethora of diseases and medical conditions was to harvest stem cells from embryonic human life? About how the destruction of the human embryo was a sad but necessary price to pay for the incalculable advances that could be achieved? Remember the accusations that were hurled against those who opposed this utilitarian reasoning on ethical grounds, and dared to suggest that there might be an alternative and ethically acceptable route to medical progress?
It has just been announced that Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University shares this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Why? Because they have been at the forefront of research proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different bodily tissues.
Ian Sample reports. This is the ethical perspective from the end of the article:
For Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, the researchers’ work deserved particular praise because reprogrammed cells overcome the moral concerns that surrounded research on embryonic stem cells.
“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.”
And here is some of the scientific background:
The groundbreaking work has given scientists fresh insights into how cells and organisms develop, and may pave the way for radical advances in medicine that allow damaged or diseased tissues to be regenerated in the lab, or even inside patients’ bodies…
Prior to the duo’s research, many scientists believed adult cells were committed irreversibly to their specialist role, for example, as skin, brain or beating heart cells. Gurdon showed that essentially all cells contained the same genes, and so held all the information needed to make any tissue.
Building on Gurdon’s work, Yamanaka developed a chemical cocktail to reprogram adult cells into more youthful states, from which they could grow into many other tissue types.
In a statement, the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said the scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”…
Gurdon’s breakthrough came in 1962 at Oxford University, when he plucked the nucleus from an adult intestine cell and placed it in a frog’s egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The modified egg grew into a healthy tadpole, suggesting the mature cell had all the genetic information needed to make every cell in a frog. Previously, scientists had wondered whether different cells held different gene sets.
Yamanaka, who was born in the year of Gurdon’s discovery, reported in 2006 how mature cells from mice could be reprogrammed into immature stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cell in the body. The cells are known as iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells…
Some researchers in the field hope to turn patients’ skin cells into healthy replacement tissues for diseased or aged organs…
Interesting that one of the scientists who missed out this year was James Thompson. He was a pioneer in human embryonic stem cells, being the first to isolate them in the lab in 1998. And more recently, Thompson has shown that mature human body cells could be reprogrammed into stem cells.