Published: 14-12-2012 00:00 | Updated: 26-11-2013 10:29

Fabulous lecture by this year´s Nobel laureates

[News 2012-12-14] People trudging through the snow to the Jacob Berzelius hall, icicle studded luxury cars and shivering TV reporters: you could tell that there was something very special afoot at Karolinska Institutet on 9 December. And there was - this year´s Nobel lecture by John B Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka.

Once inside, the voices of specially invited guests mingled with those of students, but as soon as president Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson stood up to welcome everyone, you could hear a pin drop. And then Professor Urban Lendahl introduced the British Nobel Laureate.

John B Gurdon Photo: Staffan Larsson
John B Gurdon Photo: Staffan Larsson

John B Gurdon said that this was an unforgettable day in his life before getting straight to the point and talking about how he made his prize-winning discovery that a nucleus from a specialised frog cell could be reprogrammed into a non-differentiated state if transplanted into an egg. From these manipulated eggs, he then grew living frogs.

"The first living frog born after cell transplantation was of pretty good quality," he recalled. "It lived for 20 years and had 4,000 children."

But reprogramming through nuclear transplantation is harder than it sounds, and compelled John B Gurdon to use martial metaphors to describe how the nucleus and the egg fight each other for dominance of the cell´s destiny. The egg has a mission to reprogramme the cell nucleus, which normally comes from a sperm. If the egg wins, an embryo can start developing; however, the nucleus has a built-in resistance to the egg´s attack, which Dr Gurdon is still struggling to understand.

"When Shinya Yamanaka published his paper on iPS cells in 2006, scientists were spellbound," said Professor Lendahl on presenting Dr Gurdon´s Japanese co-laureate.

Shinya Yamanaka Photo: Staffan Larsson
Shinya Yamanaka Photo: Staffan Larsson

And then Dr Yamanaka spellbound the audience with a fabulous lecture.

He talked about how he abandoned his career as a surgeon, something for which he 'completely lacked talent', to help patients through research instead. A series of unexpected discoveries took him from blood vessels via cancer to stem cells, where his research would eventually lead him to the development of the Nobel prize-winning iPS cells.

One key to his success was the mentors who urged him on in his research, despite his insistence on disproving their hypotheses.

"I´m trying to be as good a mentor," he said. "It isn´t easy, but I´m doing my best."

Dr Yamanaka also described how on an involuntary visit to Japan after having spent time working in the USA, he was struck by "PAD" (Post American Depression), which raised a laugh from the audience.

He was so badly affected that he almost quit his science. But when he heard that other researchers had succeeded in producing human embryonic stem cells, his motivation was rekindled.

"I knew then that stem cells could be used to help patients," he said.

He was given the chance to start his own laboratory and began to develop a method for reprogramming normal cells into stem cells, which he thought would unshackle stem-cell research from the moral chains that had been hampering the use of embryonic stem cells. He knew that this was possible thanks to the discoveries of, amongst others, Dr Gurdon, which were published in the same year that Dr Yamanaka was born.

"If it wasn´t for his work, I wouldn´t be standing here today," he said.

His research group achieved their objective after six years. Another six years later, the day before the announcement of this year´s Nobel Prize winners, Dr Yamanaka happened to be attending the same conference as Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson in Kyoto, Japan.

"I thought she winked at me when she left, but I couldn´t be sure," he said. "Now I know she did!"