A Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine is awarded to researchers who manage to make revolutionary or significant discoveries in their fields. This contributes greatly to the understanding of how organisms function and how to cure diseases previously considered non-treatable. In 2012, the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to two scientists: John B. Gurdon of the University of Cambridge in England, and Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan.
Yamanaka and Gurdon produced groundbreaking research in a controversial study of stem cells. Their experiments focused on manipulating living cells and generating so-called pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). “They discovered that a mature, adult cell can be turned back to an infant, versatile state called a stem cell” (France-Presse, 2012). Studying stem cells, as it is expected, will cause a breakthrough in curing a wide variety of degenerative diseases. Gurdon and Yamanaka were the first scientists to prove that iPSCs could be created in a laboratory environment, rather than harvested from aborted fetuses, thus avoiding the highly controversial moral issues driving anti-abortion activists’ arguments concerning human life. Stem cell research can now be conducted without controversy, and people with a wide variety of degenerative diseases can have hope for a cure (Cook, 2012).
The research of Gurdon and Yamanaka are 40 years apart and represent many separate milestones. They did not work on this project together. Gurdon was working on cloning with tadpoles in 1962, and Yamanaka discovered how to reprogram mature human cells so that they could revert to their primitive state. Gurdon’s work demonstrated that cells contained the same genetic code and that individual cells were capable of creating an entire animal if manipulated. His work has become the basis for the cloning procedure. Yamanaka took that understanding and built his research on it. Using mouse skin cells, he returned them to an embryonic state and demonstrated how these cells could then redevelop into any part of the body (Holmes, 2012).
The two prize winners’ work has revolutionized not only the way scientists think about cells, but it has also laid the foundations for cures of many diseases. Scientists all over the world are studying cells that have been damaged, such as those damaged by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. They are examining each disease at the cellular level so they can understand them. Scientists are hoping to replace damaged cells with healthy ones, as well as find therapies that can help control degenerative diseases. Other physical ailments this discovery can help with are type 1 diabetes, serious spinal cord injuries, and muscular degeneration. Doctors are giving heart attack victims infusions of cardiac stem cells to increase the vitality of the heart muscle and to help it pump. Also, special stem cells are used in trials for patients with retinal disease, which causes blindness, to determine whether stem cells can restore their sight (Holmes, 2012).
Yamanaka and Gurdon were awarded the Noble Prize because their revolutionary discovery removed roadblocks to further scientific research. Controversy has hampered research in this area of science, even though it has the potential to make life better for people and also to save many lives. Previously, governments around the world had forbidden experimentation on human embryos and the Vatican had condemned the studies. All of those arguments concerning stem cell research have been removed.
Stem cell research has been a controversial topic for years. Yamanaka purposefully attempted to develop a procedure that would push science forward as well as silence critics. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded the prize to these two scientists because of the potential to research further into areas that will benefit humankind.
France-Presse (2012). Nobel Prize Winning Stem Cell Research Holds Dramatic
Potential. Retrieved on December 31, 2012 from http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2012/10/08/nobel-prize-winning-stem-cell-research-holds-dramatic-potential/.
Holmes, D. (2012). Stem Cell Scientists Share 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The Lancet, 380(9850), 1295-1295. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)61743-7.
Cook, M. (2012). Stem Cell Researchers Win Nobel Prize. Australasian Science, 33, 48-
48. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1178996633?accountid=35812.
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Writing an Expository Essay
- Introduction: What are stem cells, and why are they important?
- What are the unique properties of all stem cells?
- What are embryonic stem cells?
- What are adult stem cells?
- What are the similarities and differences between embryonic and adult stem cells?
- What are induced pluripotent stem cells?
- What are the potential uses of human stem cells and the obstacles that must be overcome before these potential uses will be realized?
- Where can I get more information?
I. Introduction: What are stem cells, and why are they important?
Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing essentially without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.
Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by two important characteristics. First, they are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. Second, under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells regularly divide to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, however, such as the pancreas and the heart, stem cells only divide under special conditions.
Until recently, scientists primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells from animals and humans: embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic "somatic" or "adult" stem cells. The functions and characteristics of these cells will be explained in this document. Scientists discovered ways to derive embryonic stem cells from early mouse embryos more than 30 years ago, in 1981. The detailed study of the biology of mouse stem cells led to the discovery, in 1998, of a method to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow the cells in the laboratory. These cells are called human embryonic stem cells. The embryos used in these studies were created for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilization procedures. When they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor. In 2006, researchers made another breakthrough by identifying conditions that would allow some specialized adult cells to be "reprogrammed" genetically to assume a stem cell-like state. This new type of stem cell, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), will be discussed in a later section of this document.
Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lungs, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease.
Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, and heart disease. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell-based therapies to treat disease, which is also referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine.
Laboratory studies of stem cells enable scientists to learn about the cells’ essential properties and what makes them different from specialized cell types. Scientists are already using stem cells in the laboratory to screen new drugs and to develop model systems to study normal growth and identify the causes of birth defects.
Research on stem cells continues to advance knowledge about how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms. Stem cell research is one of the most fascinating areas of contemporary biology, but, as with many expanding fields of scientific inquiry, research on stem cells raises scientific questions as rapidly as it generates new discoveries.
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