Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine Goes to Stem Cell Researchers

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The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was announced on Monday. The award this year went to Sir John B. Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. The two men were awarded the Nobel Prize jointly, for their individual work in cloning and stem cell research.

Monday's recognition marked the awarding of the first Nobel Prize for 2012. The rest of the Nobel Prize recipients will be announced throughout the next two weeks.

Here is some of the key information regarding Gurdon and Yamanaka's work and Monday's Nobel Prize announcement.

* Yamanaka and Gurdon did not work together or present shared research, even though they both concentrate their studies on a similar area of research.

* Gurdon is actually being honored for work he did back in 1962. According to a New York Times report, he was the first person to clone an animal, a frog, opening the door to further research into stem cells and cloning.

* Gurdon was able to produce live tadpoles from the adult cells of a frog, by removing the nucleus of a frog's egg and putting the adult cells in its place.

* This "reprogramming" by Gurdon laid the groundwork for Yamanaka's work four decades later. Yamanaka's work, which dates back only six years, to 2006, focused on the mechanisms behind Gurdon's results.

* According to the Los Angeles Times, Yamanaka was sharply criticized at first for his own work, in which he sought to discover how cells are able to reprogram themselves the way that Gurdon's work first suggested that they could.

* Ultimately, Yamanaka was able to isolate just four cells that were needed in order to be able to reprogram other cells back to an embryonic state, allowing them to be manipulated into developing into any particular kind of cell that was needed. These cells have now been dubbed "induced pluripotent stem cells," or iPS cells, according to reports by CNN and other media outlets.

* Scientists are reproducing Yamanaka's technique in their own labs to be able to replicate disease cells, like those of Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, in order to study them and even to test the effects of potential new treatments.

* Yamanaka's work is also being credited with allowing scientists to sidestep the controversial issue of embryonic stem cell research, by giving researchers a different way to go about their research into stem cells.

* Together, Gurdon's and Yamanaka's individual work is being credited with revolutionizing the way that scientists look at cells and their ability to reprogram themselves, an ability that is now considered crucial to our understanding of disease. Specifically, in making the official announcement on Monday, Nobel Prize Committee member Goran K. Hansson said that the two men were being honored "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent."

Vanessa Evans is a musician and freelance writer based in Michigan, with a lifelong interest in health and nutrition issues.

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