Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine Awarded to Revolutionary Stem Cell ResearchersS

In 1962, Cambridge biologist John Gurdon proved the impossible possible by demonstrating that a fully developed cell, taken from the intestine an adult frog, contained all the genetic information necessary to give rise to an entirely new frog.

In 2006, Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka brought the tremendous implications of Gurdon's achievement back into focus, by showing that mature cells could be not only coaxed into a primitive state, but "re-programmed" to develop into a variety of other cell types.

These two experiments, performed nearly half a century apart, have revolutionized the field of biomedical research. Today, Gurdon and Yamanaka share the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

The Nobel Prize Award Committee provides the details on Gurdon's "dogma-shattering" discovery, and Yamanaka's role in proving that cells could, indeed, be reprogrammed:

The prevalent view during the first half of the 20th century was that... mature cells were permanently locked into the differentiated state, and unable to return to a fully immature, pluripotent stem cell state. In 1962, [Gurdon] radically changed this view by demonstrating that the nucleus from a differentiated frog intestinal epithelial cell was capable of generating a fully functional tadpole upon transplantation to an enucleated egg.

[Gurdon's] discovery shattered the dogma that cellular differentiation could only be a unidirectional process... however, the question remained whether an intact differentiated cell could be fully reprogrammed to become pluripotent. In 2006, by an astonishingly simple procedure, Shinya Yamanaka proved that introduction of a small set of transcription factors into a differentiated cell was sufficient to revert the cell to a pluripotent state. The resulting cells were called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Together, Gurdon and Yamanaka have transformed our understanding of cellular differentiation.

For Gurdon, recognition for his paradigm-shifting research in the form of a Nobel prize has been a long time coming. Yamanaka, in contrast, has been awarded the prize just six years after the publication of his team's iPS research (as Nobel Prize turnaround times go, a six-year span between research and recognition is pretty damn snappy).

To some that might sound unfair, but the scenario draws attention to an enduring truth of the scientific process that is worth remembering: findings like Gurdon's are often necessary to shift the perspective of other scientists, and to guide their investigations in entirely new directions. This process plays out in such a way that the importance of original findings can remain hidden for many years — or even decades. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone question the importance of basic research.

You can read more details on Gurdon and Yamanaka's research here.