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Science & Environment

Nobel Season Kicks Off With Medicine Prize


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced today in Stockholm, Sweden. Two men share that prize.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012, jointly to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka; for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.

INSKEEP: Pluripotent - that is a word we have rarely used on MORNING EDITION, but we'll use it this morning. These men will split a prize worth about $1 million U.S.

And we're going to try to explain what pluripotency means. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK, what? What is it? What did they do?

STEIN: Well, what they did was, this was work that together led to the discovery of something called induced pluripotent stem cells. This...

INSKEEP: Sounds very potent, sounds powerful.

STEIN: Well, they are. And that's why scientists think they're so important. Scientists call them IPS cells; that's another name. And basically, what these cells are - they're not human embryonic stem cells - which a lot of people probably have heard of, but which are obtained from embryos, and they're extremely controversial. But these cells are very similar to human embryonic stem cells, but they sidestep a lot of the ethical and moral questions that are raised by those cells.

INSKEEP: Are you saying these are cells that you can use for advanced research; that do not get into all these questions about life, and other things?

STEIN: Exactly. That's the potential, anyway. And that's why scientists have been so excited about these. These are cells that basically, you can take any cell in the body, potentially - like a skin cell - and you can manipulate them in the laboratory, in a petri dish. And you can basically make them regress to a very immature state. It's almost like you're taking them back in time. And then once you've done that, you can potentially morph them into any other kind of cell in the body, to use them to treat all kinds of diseases.

INSKEEP: Does that mean you can use them to create new tissue? You could take that skin cell and use it to grow new skin, or some other - organ of the body?

STEIN: Exactly. That's the great hope of this - is that you could use them to create new brain cells, to treat people with Alzheimer's disease; or you can use them to create insulin-producing cells, to treat people with diabetes; or maybe even help paralyzed people walk again someday.

INSKEEP: So how advanced is the research using these cells that become pluripotent? How much research has already been done?

STEIN: You know, a lot of research has been done. But we still are in the very early stages. Scientists have shown that they can do this. They can take these cells, and they can make them turn into all kinds of other cells - into heart cells, brain cells; all kinds of cells. And they've taken some of the very early steps into trying to turn them into treatments. They're just starting to do that now, but they haven't quite gotten there yet.

INSKEEP: So for their work with these cells, two men share the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Tell us a little more about them.

STEIN: Right. The first person is a gentleman by the name of John Gurdon. He's now 79 years old. He works at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England. He won for work he did way back in 1962. It involved tadpoles, and turning frog cells into normal tadpoles.

And then Shinya Yamanaka - he's about 50 now. He works at the Kyoto University, in Japan; and also at something called the Gladstone Institute, in San Francisco. He showed in - about 40 years later, in 2006 - you could take these very immature cells and manipulate them genetically, with a very simple recipe - which really shocked scientists, to turn them into these induced pluripotent stem cells.

INSKEEP: It's amazing to hear you say that some of this research is 50 years old. You said 1962, didn't you?

STEIN: That's right. That's when John Gurdon did his original work.

INSKEEP: And yet it's taken half a century for that work to begin to show some fruit.

STEIN: That's right. That's the way science usually works. It starts with this very basic research. And nobody knows - it may lead someplace; it may not. And then somebody else builds on it and builds on it, until you get something that actually shows up in the clinic.

INSKEEP: How respected were these guys in their field, before this award came along?

STEIN: Oh, they're both very well-respected and very well-known. And Shinya Yamanaka has become a leader in the field of stem cell research now.

INSKEEP: And have people begun to wrestle with the ethical questions raised by this work? It sidesteps the life issues; it sidesteps a lot of politics, as you mentioned. And yet still, there's the question of creating life from scratch.

STEIN: Yeah, of course. Whenever you do that, you raise all kinds of moral and ethical questions. And even, you know, induced pluripotent stem cells are not without some controversy. I mean, there's all kinds of questions about safety; and at what point do we really start to test these things; and how do you get real informed consent from people who are desperate for cures - like people who are paralyzed or dying from Alzheimer's, or something like that.

INSKEEP: OK. Rob, thanks very much.

STEIN: Nice to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Stein, telling us about the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, announced today in Sweden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.