Born: 4 September 1962, Osaka, Japan
Affiliation at the time of the award: Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan, Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, CA, USA
Prize motivation: "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent"
Prize share: 1/2
Our lives begin when a fertilized egg divides and forms new cells that, in turn, also divide. These cells are identical in the beginning, but become increasingly varied over time. As a result of this process, our cells become specialized for their location in the body - perhaps in a nerve, a muscle, or a kidney. It was long thought that a mature or specialized cell could not return to an immature state, but this has been proven incorrect.
In 1962, John Gurdon removed the nucleus of a fertilized egg cell from a frog and replaced it with the nucleus of a mature cell taken from a tadpole's intestine. This modified egg cell grew into a new frog, proving that the mature cell still contained the genetic information needed to form all types of cells. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka succeeded in identifying a small number of genes within the genome of mice that proved decisive in this process. When activated, skin cells from mice could be reprogrammed to immature stem cells, which, in turn, can grow into all types of cells within the body. In the long-term, these discoveries may lead to new medical treatments.
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