New Delhi: This year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine underlines the slender margin between winning and losing.
Monday’s announcement of the prize to John Gurdon at Cambridge University and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University for discovering and showing in different ways that even matured cells—or adult stem cells as they are called—that are destined to be skin or nerve or intestinal cells, could be programmed into an immature state.
James Thomson, a top researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, transformed human cells just as Yamanaka’s work appeared in the journal Cell and Thomson’s in Science, both highly respected science journals.
However, Yamanaka was ahead in the race as he a showed a “proof of concept” in 2006 when he was able to transform mice cells, and it’s this discovery that’s cited by the Nobel Prize committee.
Other than being a startling feat of science, the work of Yamanaka and Thomson also bypasses ethical concerns on the harvesting of stem cells, said by some to be the biggest scientific advance of the century. Stem cells can potentially regenerate new organs as well as, in the far future, grow a whole human.
Gurdon first demonstrated this in 1962 using frog cells and his work paved the way for Ian Wilmut to create Dolly the sheep, or the first cloned mammal. While Gurdon and Wilmut needed to tinker with cells’ nucleii, Yamanaka, found that all it took was a few genes to switch human skin cells back to a state in which they could be transformed to any other kind of cell.
Unlike Yamanaka, Thomson had courted controversy in 1998 and sparked one of the biggest controversies in science—the ethics of harvesting stem cells from embryos. In 1998, his group was the first to report the creation of human stem cells that could be directed to grow into a variety of other cells.
This was controversial because getting these cells involved damaging embryos, even though, as Thomson said, the only ones that were used for their work were ones that had been discarded.
The ensuing controversy, however, spurred the US government to ban the use of embryos for stem cell research. Meanwhile, crucially, it turned out that Thomson along with Yamanaka had independently figured out a way to create embryonic stem cells, without the need for embryos.
However, it isn’t that Thomson has languished in obscurity like Rosalind Franklin, the woman whose work prompted James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, but never really got her due. Thomson was voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential scientists in 2001 and 2008, but then there’s nothing like losing out on a Nobel.