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Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD

A Japanese researcher with ties to the Bay Area joined a British researcher as winners of this year's Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for discovering that ordinary cells can be turned into stem cells, capable of building any kind of tissue -- a discovery likely to lead to new treatments.

Scientists are already building on the work by John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, who leads a research team at UC San Francisco, creating "disease in a dish" models of illnesses like Parkinson's and diabetes to test drugs. Someday they hope to build custom-made tissue for repair or replacement.

Yamanaka's work has transformed stem cell research because his technique bypasses the use of human embryos, a practice slowed by ethical, political, funding and logistical controversy. Now virtually all stem cell research uses his technique, and the field is developing quickly.

In announcing the $1.2 million award, the Nobel committee at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute said the discovery has "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."

Yamanaka looks forward to even stronger interest in building on the discoveries. "The best part about this prize is that it will bring attention to -- and will likely spur -- the important stem cell work that scientists around the world are conducting," Yamanaka said in a statement released by UCSF. "This technology is for patients, and the more scientists who build on it, the faster we can help those who live with chronic or life-threatening diseases."


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Gurdon's and Yamanaka's experiments took place more than 40 years apart.

Gurdon showed in 1962 -- the year Yamanaka was born -- that adult cells contain all the genetic information needed to create other tissues in the body. Specifically, he found that the DNA from frogs' skin or intestinal cells could be used to generate new tadpoles.

At the time, the discovery had "no obvious therapeutic benefit at all," Gurdon told reporters in London. "It was almost 50 years before the value -- the potential value -- of that basic scientific research comes to light."

In 2006, Yamanaka showed how to flick the switch, inducing these adult cells to change. His surprisingly simple recipe, using just four key genes, turned back the clock on mature cells so they became more primitive, then could be nudged into becoming something new -- say, heart or brain cells.

The primitive cells behave a lot like embryonic stem cells -- and don't require destroying embryos to collect the stem cells.

In fact, they are superior to embryonic stem cells because they can be extracted from a sick patient's own body -- so any new cells are tailor-made to that patient.

This is ushering in the era of "personalized medicine." Someday, scientists hope, it will be possible to first test a drug on cells in a dish, not a person. Or if sick person needs replacement cells due to destructive diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's, the body will not reject new cells created from its own tissues.

Yamanaka was a young Ph.D. and physician and when he came to San Francisco in 1993. He had applied to 50 U.S. research programs -- but only the Gladstone Institutes accepted him. After several setbacks, his heart disease work led to stem cell research.

The 50-year-old scientist -- whose wife is a physician and whose two daughters are in medical school -- splits his time between San Francisco and Kyoto. In San Francisco, he is a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, which is affiliated with the University of California. In Japan, he directs the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application and is an investigator at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, both at Kyoto University.

Gurdon, 79, has been a professor of cell biology at Cambridge University's Magdalene College and is at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which he founded.

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 Peace Prize on Friday. The economics prize will be announced on Oct. 15. All prizes will be awarded on Dec. 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

Associated Press writer Malcolm Ritter contributed to this report.

Generating new cells

Researchers John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka on Monday shared a Nobel Prize for their research in reprogramming cells. Many scientists built on Gurdon's work in the pursuit of curing diseases and perhaps one day generating replacement organs for humans.

  • 1962: John Gurdon of Oxford University clones a tadpole with the genetic characteristics of the original frog, using the nucleus of a skin cell to replace the embryo's nucleus.
  • 1981: Gail Martin of UC San Francisco isolates stem cells from mice.
  • 1996: Ian Wilmut of the Roslin Institute uses Gurdon's method to clone Dolly, the sheep.
  • 1998: James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin isolates human embryonic stem cells.
  • 2006: Shinya Yamanaka generates "embryonic stem-like cells" by introducing four genes into mouse skin cells.
  • 2007: Yamanaka repeats the feat with human cells.
  • 2007: Rudolf Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute uses Yamanaka's method to treat a sickle cell anemia in a mouse model.
  • 2008: Jaenisch reprograms neurons to improve symptoms in an animal model of Parkinson's disease.
  • 2010: Marius Wernig of Stanford University converts mouse skin cells into functional neurons.
  • 2010: Deepak Srivastava of the Gladstone Institutes reprograms mouse nonmuscle cells into beating heart cells.
  • 2011: Sheng Ding of the Gladstone Institutes proves that skin cells turned into neurons can transmit brain signals.
  • 2012: Steven Finkbeiner of the Gladstone Institutes uses cells from Huntington's disease patients to create first-ever model of disease.
  • 2012: Japanese team plans first human study of reprogrammed cells to treat age-related macular degeneration.

    Source: Gladstone Institutes