Five years after Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University shook the R&D world with the news that he had converted mature cells into embryonic-like stem cells, the Nobel committee has awarded him one of this year's prestigious prizes for medicine.
Until Yamanaka proved that you could take a skin cell, insert it with DNA and get it to reverse back to an embryonic state--able to transform into the kind of stem cells needed by researchers, stem cell investigators had to rely on the controversial practice of destroying embryos for their research materials. By bypassing embryos, Yamanaka was able to reenergize a research field which had been stymied by federal regulations which had restricted the use of badly needed federal dollars.
Like almost every other new technology to boil up in the drug research world, stem cells have gone through their hot and cold phases. But few fields have had to endure the kind of intense public scrutiny and debate that stem cells sparked. With the development of iPS cells, not always a smooth transition, many in the field hope that stem cells can once again win back its old pioneering status. Many investigators feel that stem cells offer the best approach to curing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other dread diseases.
Yamanaka is sharing this year's price with John Gurdon, a U.K. professor who demonstrated way back in 1962 that a cell contained all the genetic information needed to create a frog, opening the path to cloning Dolly the sheep.
"These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine," said the Nobel committee.