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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

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Newest Nobel laureate: Shinya Yamanaka speaks at a news conference Monday at Kyoto University after it was announced he is sharing the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with British researcher John Gurdon. KYODO

Yamanaka, Gurdon win Nobel prize in medicine for work on iPS cells

Kyodo, AP

STOCKHOLM — Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and John Gurdon of Britain have jointly won this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for development of a multipurpose stem cell that has the potential to grow into any type of body tissue, the award-giving body said Monday.

Yamanaka and Gurdon discovered that mature and specialized cells "can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said.

"Their findings have revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop," it said. The iPS cells are believed to have great potential for regenerative medicine and development of new drugs.

Gurdon, 79, head of the Gurdon Institute of Cambridge University, discovered in 1962 that the specialization of cells is reversible — the initial step for the discovery by the two scientists that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.

More than 40 years later Yamanaka, a professor at Kyoto University, successfully produced induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, from mice in 2006 and from human skin cells in 2007.

Yamanaka, 50, is the first Japanese winner of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine since Susumu Tonegawa won in 1987 for his discovery of the genetic principle for the generation of antibody diversity.

Yamanaka was given the coveted prize only six years after the announcement of his development of the iPS cells.

"From now on, I'd like to make a contribution to society in a real sense. I feel a great sense of responsibility," Yamanaka said at a news conference in Kyoto. "I want to use our medical breakthrough for medical purposes."

A native of Osaka Prefecture and a graduate of Kobe University, Yamanaka has received a number of awards for his achievements, most recently this year's Millennium Technology Prize given by a Finnish academy.

He currently heads Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, and the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Gurdon, a former professor of cell biology at Cambridge University and former master of Magdalene College, was the first to discover that the specialization of cells is reversible.

The two will together receive award money of $1.2 million at the award ceremony to be held Dec. 10 in Stockholm.

Choosing Yamanaka as a Nobel winner just six years after his discovery was unusual. The Nobel committees typically reward research done more than a decade ago, to make sure it has stood the test of time.

In 2010, the Nobel Prize in physics went to two researchers whose discoveries were also published six years earlier. In 2006, two American scientists won the medicine prize eight years after their work was published.

Prize committee member Juleen Zierath said Gurdon and Yamanaka's discoveries, which also earned them a Lasker award for basic research in 2009, could hold "immense potential," including in developing treatments for Parkinson's disease and in making cells that produce insulin. However, she added that therapeutic implications are still far away.

Experts welcomed the announcement, praising the duo for their groundbreaking and influential discoveries in a field riddled with ethical debates.

"Everyone who works on developmental biology and on the understanding of disease mechanisms will applaud these excellent and clear choices for the Nobel Prizes," said John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience at University College London. "Countless labs' work builds on the breakthroughs they have pioneered."

The medicine award was the first Nobel Prize to be announced this year. The physics award will be announced Tuesday, followed by chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

The economics prize, which was not among the original awards but was established by the Swedish central bank in 1968, will be announced Oct. 15. All prizes will be handed out Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

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