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Professor Sir John Gurdon awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Professor Sir John Gurdon (Magdalene 1960)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has today been jointly awarded to Professor Sir John Gurdon, Emeritus Professor in Cell Biology currently at the University’s Gurdon Institute, along with Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, for their pioneering work in stem cell research.

The Nobel Assembly has today announced that Professor Sir John Gurdon has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2012, along with Professor Shinya Yamanaka, for their ground-breaking work which proved that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body.

The Assembly stated that their work “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop” and that their discoveries “have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation.”

It was previously thought that once a cell reached a level of maturity to become specialised, creating the various tissues that make up a body, it was an irreversible, one-way process – that fate of the cell is permanently locked.

Gurdon discovered in 1962 that the specialisation of cells is in fact reversible by eliminating the nucleus of a frog egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus from an already mature and specialised cell lifted from a tadpole.

The modified frog egg developed into a normal tadpole, proving that the mature cell still contained all necessary DNA to develop all cells in the frog – and effectively cloning the tadpole.

As the Nobel Assembly points out, he thus proved that the nucleus of the mature cell “had not lost its capacity to drive development to a fully functional organism”. This discovery that a mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state revolutionised cell biology, leading to the establishment of new research areas and eventually the cloning of mammals.

“I am immensely honoured to be awarded this spectacular recognition, and delighted to be due to receive it with Shinya Yamanaka, whose work has brought the whole field within the realistic expectation of therapeutic benefits,” said Gurdon.

“I am of course most enormously grateful to those colleagues who have worked with me, at various times over the last half century. It is particularly pleasing to see how purely basic research, originally aimed at testing the genetic identity of different cell types in the body, has turned out to have clear human health prospects.”

The Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Institute – part of the University of Cambridge – where Gurdon was formerly chairman, was renamed the Gurdon Institute in 2004, in honour of Gurdon’s extraordinary achievements in the field of developmental and cancer biology.

In 2006, more than 40 years after Gurdon’s initial discovery, Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University discovered how intact mature cells in mice could also be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells, able to develop into all types of cells in the body.

The Nobel Assembly notes that these “these discoveries have provided new tools for scientists around the world and led to remarkable progress in many areas of medicine,” including invaluable new avenues for understanding disease mechanisms, providing new opportunities to develop medical therapies.

“I am absolutely thrilled that John has won the Nobel Prize,” said Professor Daniel St Johnston, current Director of the Gurdon Institute. “He is not only a great scientist who laid the foundations for modern stem cell research but a fantastic role model who has done an enormous amount for British Science.”

Gurdon’s journey to the highest level of science was not straightforward, and had something of a bumpy start. On a shelf in his Cambridge office, Gurdon still keeps a framed copy of a school report (pictured, credit: Professor Sir John Gurdon) from Eton College when he was 15 years old. His teacher at the time describes Gurdon’s scientific ambitions as “quite ridiculous”, due to the fact that “he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way.” 

Gurdon's school report - credit: Prof. Sir John GurdonProfessor Sir John Gurdon was born in 1933 in Dippenhall, UK, and is a Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He received his Doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1960 and was a postdoctoral fellow at California Institute of Technology. He joined Cambridge University, UK, in 1972 and has served as Professor of Cell Biology. Gurdon was Master of Magdalene College from 1995 to 2003 when he was succeeded by current Master Duncan Robinson.

Professor Gurdon is the 89th Cambridge affiliate to be awarded a Nobel Prize.


Find out more in the article accompanying the video interview here.

Original articles from the University news website, 08/10/12 and 12/10/12 (interview).