Xenopus frogs star in 2012 Nobel Prize
This morning the Nobel Assembly announced that the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will be shared by John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka for their “discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent”. Animal research played a key role in the research honoured by the prize, specifically the studies of frogs undertaken by Professor Gurdon and studies of mice performed by Professor Yamanaka.
Professor Gurdon’s key work showedin a series of studies undertaken at the University of Oxford in the late 1950’s and 1960’s that if the nucleus of a specialised cell from a frog of the species Xenopus laevis - initially from late embryonic cells and subsequently adult intestinal and skin cells – was transferred into an egg whose nucleus had been removed, it could give rise to normal frog that could themselves produce offspring. This demonstrated for the first time that the nucleus of an adult cell is totipotent, and that in under certain conditions it could give rise to all cell types, including eggs and sperm, that are required in a healthy adult.
In 2009 Sir John wrote an account of his research on nuclear transfer in Xenopus for Nature Medicine, which can be read online without subscription,after he and Professor Yamanakawerepresented with the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2009.
Almost 4 decades later Professor Yamanaka, then at the Kyoto University Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences, made another great step forward by proving that it was possible to transform adult mouse cells into a pluripotent stem cells without nuclear transfer. By inserting 4 genes whose expression is associated with the embryonic state into the adult cell, his team were able to create the first induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, cells that could give rise to any tissue in the body.
It’s worth remembering that this breakthrough did not come out of thin air, but was built on years of research that followed the pioneering work of Martin Evans and Gail Martin who demonstrated that cells derived from mouse embryos could be cultured and give rise to all tissue types…the first embryonic stem cells.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine highlights once again the key role played by animal research in making ground breaking discoveries that give rise to new fields of medicine, and we offer our heart-felt congratulations to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka.