A top stem cell researcher at the University of Cambridge has been awarded one of the most prestigious medical prizes in Europe.

Professor Austin Smith, Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, has won the annual Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine, which is given to the best biomedical researchers in Europe and is worth £350,000.

Professor Smith, the Centre, and Cambridge have played a pivotal role in stem cell research in the last few years. The University’s Department of Genetics discovered unique properties of stem cells in the 1980s, a breakthrough that led to the principal researcher, Professor Sir Martin Evans, winning the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Professor Smith himself is focused on researching the properties of stem cells by determining their basic biology, which is still not fully comprehended by researchers. Only when scientists actually know how the cells really function will their clinical applications, particularly their potential for treating human diseases, become more than a theoretical possibility.

It is the ability of stem cells to manufacture every other type of cell in the body - so-called pluripotency - that has fascinated Professor Smith throughout his research career.

The Louis-Jeantet prize money will be invaluable for the Centre for Stem Cell Research, coming at a time when researchers are working to overcome a significant barrier in the field, namely the question of why pluripotent cells in mice and rats behave so differently to those in humans.

According to Professor Smith, "It’s a problem that’s slowing up the field at the moment, so this funding will help us investigate pluripotency in species other than mice and rats. It’s a very basic question but the answer could have profound implications."

He explained, "At the moment, we think human stem cells are not the same ‘blank slate’ as stem cells in rodents. We think human stem cells don’t all behave the same because they carry different molecular baggage."

"This makes the field difficult because things aren’t consistent. If you can solve that problem you would have a standardised starting material."