Stem Cell Reprogramming Researchers Win Nobel Prize in Medicine

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Oct 8, 2012   |   12:04PM   |   Stockholm, Sweden

Two stem cell researchers, British researcher John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan, are the winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on reprogramming adult stem cells to have embryonic-like properties.

Yamanaka made a major step towards making embryonic stem cell research obsolete when they used direct reprogramming to convert adult stem cells to an embryonic-like state. Now, direct conversion is moving the ball forward and embryonic stem cell research is no longer the scientific fad it used to be years ago.

The process of direct conversion involves changing one kind of specialized stem cell into another kind — and it eliminates the need for controversial embryonic stem cells, which some scientists promote because they can change into most any kind of cells. Direct conversion is helpful because embryonic stem cells are producing immature cells and the new process would produce mature cells that provide better prospects for patients and cures.

The direct conversion approach also avoids the need to create embryonic-like stem cells from adult stem cells because it gets to the end result of creating new cells without going through additional steps from beginning to end.

The Nobel Prize committee at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute said the discovery has “revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.”

“The discoveries of Gurdon and Yamanaka have shown that specialized cells can turn back the developmental clock under certain circumstances,” the committee said. “These discoveries have also provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine.”

Dr. David Prentice, a former Indiana State University biology professor who is now a fellow at the Family Research Council, told LifeNews Yamanaka deserves praise for doing the research ethically while Gurdon did it by unethical cloning.

“Yamanaka should rightly be praised, because he came up with the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technique, which converts adult cells (not adult stem cells) to embryonic-like stem cells, but without use of embryos, eggs, or cloning,” he explained. “Gurdon is a cloner, plain & simple. He creates & destroys embryos, and
has never done anything with adult stem cells, only with cloning and embryos.”

“While both scientists discovered how to “reprogram” a specialized cell, i.e., turn back the clock on development, they accomplished this by two very different methods,” Prentice added. “Gurdon did it by cloning–by putting a specialized cell nucleus into an egg, and initiating the life of a new organism, as an embryo. It is an undefined and ethically-tainted technique, creating and destroying new life for experiments.”

“Yamanaka, on the other hand, did exhaustive work to figure out just a few (four) key genes to turn on, to add those few genes to any intact cell, and get them to revert to earlier stage. Creating these new induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells does not involve the use of embryos, eggs, or cloning. In fact, Yamanaka noted soon after the announcement of the production of human iPS cells in 2007 that development of the technique had an ethical origin,” he added.

“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

Prentince continued: “Meanwhile, oft-ignored adult stem cells continue to treat thousands of suffering patients. Adult stem cells remain the gold standard of stem
cells, when it comes to treatments and saving lives. You can see some examples at

Bioethics attorney Wesley J. Smith says he thinks direct conversation has the ability to make embryonic stem cell research obsolete — which helps solve the ethical problems pro-life advocates have with it since unborn children must be destroyed to obtain the cells.

“When George W. Bush praised scientists as having the talent and ability to discover and harness the healing potential of regenerative medicine ethically, that is, without needing to destroy embryos–his enemies scoffed. What a dope,” he said. “His religion got in the way of the understanding that ESCR was the only hope.”



“That was then,” Smith added.

“Now, scientists are working with a number of techniques that are already providing hope in human trials–adult stem and umbilical cord stem cells–as they develop astonishing techniques that can reprogram normal cells into pluripotent stem cells–IPSC, now being used in drug testing and to study disease–or now, even skip the stem cell stage altogether with direct reprogramming or “direct conversion.”  More advances have been made on the latter front,” Smith opined.

If scientists can make more progress with direct conversion, Smith says “the cures angle would become obsolete–and with it, the politics of hype–as the scientific focus, and the research dollars shifted–and just perhaps, the resulting ethical regenerative medicine would stall the drive toward Brave New World.”

LifeNews Note:  This article has been updated to reflect the difference between the ethical Yamanaka research and the unethical Gurdon version of reprogramming.