“My own personal belief is that we will, in the end, understand everything about how cells actually work …”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Sir John B. Gurdon following the announcement of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 8 October 2012. The interviewer is Nobelprize.org’s Adam Smith.
[John Gurdon] Hello
[Adam Smith] Hello, may I speak to Sir John Gurdon please?
[JG] Yes, this is John Gurdon speaking.
[AS] Oh hello, my name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from the Nobel Prize website in Stockholm.
[JG] Oh yes.
[AS] We have a traditional of recording extremely short interviews with new Laureates. Would you mind talking to me for just a very few minutes?
[JG] No, that’s fine. Can you hear me now?
[AS] I can hear you beautifully, yes.
[JG] Okay, we’ve got a new phone and it is a little bit erratic. But I can hear you now, and if whoever will be speaking to me can speak in this way.
[AS] Yes, I shall. I shall try and speak clearly.
[JG] Thank you very much.
[AS] Well, thank you. And of course, first, our sincere congratulations on the award.
[JG] Well, I am immensely grateful of course. What more can one say?
[AS] May I ask what you were doing when the call from Stockholm came?
[JG] Yes, I was in my, I get into lab early and leave a bit early too. So I like to have an hour or two before everybody comes in. So I was in my lab, doing things, dealing with the usual sort of emails before you get down to lab work, which I still do.
[AS] And, do you recall your initial reaction to the news?
[JG] Well, yes. Of course, the first one is this is amazing, if it’s really true. Could it be someone is pulling your leg? And that has happened before. You know, people somehow hear the date when the announcement’s made and decide to tell you that news that is totally incorrect. So you have to be a little bit cautious in believing that the person you are speaking to is actually the right person.
[JG] But he sort of said he was the secretary of the Foundation and mentioned things that made me think it probably was real. But your initial reaction must always be, is it someone teasing you?
[AS] I imagine the Swedish accent helps make it sound convincing.
[JG] Yes, that helps too. But you have to be a bit cautious, I think.
[AS] Quite, quite. It has been, it is indeed the fiftieth anniversary of that 1962 publication of yours. So it has been a long time.
[JG] Yes, well, that’s perfectly true. The major publication, on which no doubt the award was made, was actually fifty years ago. And the experiment was done a bit before that. So I’m fortunate, of course, to survive long enough to have this amazing honour.
[AS] I suppose it says something about the progress of science and how expectations shouldn’t be too great that things are going to yield benefit immediately.
[JG] I think that’s right, yes. And, of course, one is always looking for therapeutic benefits. I would say when that when the work was done there was virtually no expectation of any immediate therapeutic benefit, so the recognition as it were of the early result, one can understand has to wait. And indeed there was quite a period after the early work when people did not believe the results. So it took nearly 10 years for the major result to be accepted.
[AS] Well quite, because it was fifty years ago and you were just a graduate student at that point?
[JG] I was indeed a graduate student when the major result was obtained. That’s absolutely right, and that was in 1958 and then I took a post-doc job in California, working in a completely unrelated field. So I left my frogs, which I had grown, with my supervisor who had moved to Geneva and he and a technician grew them up. So by 1962, they were adults and one could publish a paper to say that these animals, derived from nuclear transfer, really were absolutely normal. So it took a little time to get through.
[AS] Now one looks at it as an established fact. But at the time, it must have been quite difficult flying in the face of established opinion and major figures in the field.
[JG] It was, and the people who pioneered the technique of nuclear transfer were called Briggs and King and they had developed the technique and they found, before I started work, that they got the opposite result to me. In other words, they found that when they tried to (I don’t know if you know the field) transplant nuclei from specialised cells it was not successful. So the conclusion drawn was actually opposite to what was indicated by the results that I was getting. So it’s entirely reasonable for the sceptics to say, well these well-established people have already done this experiment and here’s a graduate student from Europe who is disagreeing with them, why should we pay attention to that? Briggs, himself, was a wonderful person. He’s sadly no longer alive. But he was extremely generous and in every way reasonable. So it was just the sceptics who felt the results must be wrong. So one had to go through a few years of, in a sense, letting the results sink in and people decide if they really were correct.
[AS] That is how science should work, exactly.
[JG] That’s how things work.
[AS] And 1962 also happens to be the year that Shinya Yamanaka was born.
[JG] [Laughs] He told me that, isn’t that funny? Yes, that’s rather amazing isn’t it? [Laughs] Extraordinary coincidence, yes.
[AS] Actually, I was just speaking to him. And he was saying repeatedly how important it was to him that the two of you are tied. That his work, indeed, builds on yours and it’s only because of your work that he was able to do his work. So he was expressing his very great pleasure that the two of you are the recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize.
[JG] Well it’s extremely generous of him to take that view. And, of course, the actual key experiment he did had nothing to do with nuclear transfer at all. So I think it’s very generous of him to give credit for the very much earlier, preceding work. He’s very generous that way and always very polite and supportive. So I am, of course, extremely grateful to him for taking that positive view.
[AS] But in his work, he was, I think, looking for factors that could turn cells back …
[AS] And that was based on the principle of gene conservation in differentiation that you had established. So I suppose the fundamental …
[JG] I think that’s correct. From the early point that almost all cells of the body have the same genes, I think it was reasonably clear that given time it should be possible to achieve a complete reversal, though things take time to do. Once the principle is there, that cells have the same genes, my own personal belief is that we will, in the end, understand everything about how cells actually work. So if the genes are there, it seems to me, it must have been in principle possible to achieve a functional reversal. But it depended a lot on all the technical advances that have occurred in the meantime, to make these things possible.
[AS] Some might find that a remarkable assertion, that we will understand everything about how cells work…
[JG] Yes, that is rather presumptuous isn’t it? I’ll tell you why I like to think that. I should say, I think that, I cannot immediately see the route by which we should really understand memory and the workings of the brain. But if we take the earlier stage, that is how you get from an egg to an adult functional animal, forgetting for the moment the brain. I would have thought it would, I would have guessed that in the next 20 years or so, we would really understand in detail how all that works. In other words, we’d identify all the molecules in an egg, how they interact with others, their concentration and location. I can’t see that not becoming evident. And if that is evident, I would have thought that would explain how you would go from an egg to an adult animal. But, I can’t imagine for the moment how one can expect to fully understand things like memory and aspects of the brain. So this rather presumptuous expectation is based on, really, morphology. You know, the functional adult rather than how its brain might work.
[AS] But it does underline that all this work is fundamentally about understanding. Application is lovely, but understanding comes before application.
[JG] I think that’s exactly right. I would agree with that view. And of course it very much relates to the question that’s always being asked, which is, should basic science be supported if there isn’t an immediate benefit to health? And, of course, I am biased but I would hope that basic science would be supported. Because so often it happens that the practical or therapeutic benefit comes along quite a long time after the initial discovery.
[AS] Well, luckily, when you come to Stockholm in December, we have a chance to interview you at a greater length about all this.
[JG] Thank you very much. I understand the dates for that are early December and I look forward to hearing the programme so that I am prepared. At the moment, my thoughts are one of amazement and not had time to entirely absorb this amazing event. But, thank you anyway for talking to me a bit about it.
[AS] I wish you the very best for the rest of this, what will turn out to be, an extraordinarily busy day, no doubt.
[JG] Well I’m sure it will. And thank you very much indeed for calling.
[AS] Okay, my pleasure. Bye bye. My congratulations again.
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Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.