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Stem Cell Researchers Win Nobel Prize

By Michael Cook

The development of induced pluripotent stem cells overturned conventional thinking and removed the ethical issues associated with the destruction of embryos.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Two stem cell researchers shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2012, Britain’s John B. Gurdon and Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka. By a serendipitous coincidence, Gurdon made his discovery in 1962 – the year of Yamanaka’s birth.

Fifty years of stem cell research have brought cures for intractable diseases within reach but they have also generated controversy. Between 2001 and 2008, stem cell research vied with climate change as the stormiest issue in science.

But the gale has subsided – basically because of Yamanaka. In fact, Tom Douglas of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University describes Yamanaka’s work as “a rare example of a scientific discovery that may solve more ethical problems than it creates”.

What happened in those 50 years?

In a classic experiment at the University of Cambridge, Gurdon discovered cloning. The conventional wisdom was that cells could never change once they had specialised. He proved that this was wrong by replacing the nucleus of a frog egg cell with a nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. This modified cell developed into a normal tadpole.

This astonishing development eventually led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. But while the technique clearly worked, no one understood why.

The obvious target for investigation was the embryo. In 1998 James Thomson of the University of...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.