Cambridge biologist awarded Nobel Prize for stem cell work
Sir John Gurdon has been awarded the prize in physiology or medicine for his research.
Another name has been added to the list of Cambridge academics with Nobel Prizes as today it was announced that Sir John Gurdon, a developmental biologist at Cambridge for the last forty-one years, has been awarded the prize in physiology or medicine for his research into stem cells.
Sharing the prize with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, Gurdon said he was “immensely honoured to be awarded this spectacular recognition and delighted” to be sharing it with Yamanaka. Both have completed pioneering research into how stem cells, the organisms used to produce all tissue, can be derived from ordinary, specialised cells, opening the door to the possibility of using them to fight disease.
It was back in 1962 while Gurdon was still a graduate student at Oxford that he discovered the specialisation of cells was reversible, by using cells taken from the intestines of a frog to produce tadpoles with all the genetic information required to create a new frog. Prior to this it had been widely held that such a reversion was impossible.
The Nobel Prize committee at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm described the work of the two men as having “revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”. Yamanaka described himself as indebted to the Cambridge biologist, saying that he was only "able to receive this award because of John Gurdon”.
Gurdon commented that Yamanaka’s contribution was to bring “the whole field within the realistic expectation of therapeutic benefits”, raising the possibility of the technique’s use in combatting conditions such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease. It is hoped that cell replacement therapy could allow ordinary skin cells to be ‘reprogrammed’ to fight disease and help repair the damage caused by problems such as heart attacks.
In 2006 it was revealed that at the age of 15, Gurdon’s biology teacher dismissed the idea of him seeking a career in science as “quite ridiculous” and Gurdon applied to university intending to read Classics, before switching to study zoology. Knighted in 1995, Gurdon was master of Magdalene College from 1995 to 2002 and has worked in the Department of Zoology since 1983. In 1989 he became a co-founder of the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Institute in Cambridge, renamed the Gurdon Institute in 2004.
Gurdon is set to receive his award, and his share of the almost £750,000 prize fund, this December in Stockholm.