Two pioneers of stem cell research, Sir John B Gurdon (79) of Dippenhall, England and Shinya Yamanaka (50) of Osaka, Japan were awarded the 2012 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine on Monday. The men share the prize jointly "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent". In other words the changing of adult cells into stem cells, which can become any other type of cell in the body.
In 1962, Gurdon proved that the genetic information inside a cell taken from the intestines of a frog contained all the information needed to create a whole new frog. He took this genetic information and placed it inside a frog egg and this clone then developed into a normal tadpole.
Four decades later Shinya Yamanaka used a different approach. Instead of transferring the genetic information into an egg, he reset it. He added four genes to skin cells and transformed them into stem cells, which in turn could become specialised cells.
The effects of this? It is hoped the techniques will revolutionize medicine by using a sample of a person's skin to create stem cells. This idea could in turn be used to repair the heart after a heart attack or perhaps even reverse the progress of Alzheimer's disease.
"These ground breaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state," the Nobel Assembly said in a statement following the announcement at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This is the first for what will be a series of prizes announced this week. The Norwegian Nobel committee will announce the most anticipated of the annual honours - the Nobel Peace Prize - in Oslo on Friday.