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Cells that change themselves

The recent announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winners, John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, has stirred emotions in the Boston University scientific community.

Gurdon and Yamanaka, who received the combined Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 8, were awarded the prize for their combined findings on the nature of cells, particularly stem cells, throughout their careers, according to the Nobel Prize website. Their combined findings have created the foundation for further research on the manipulation of living cells.

In 1962, Gurdon demonstrated that cells that were previously considered fixed could be changed. By taking a mature or “specialized” cell from a frog and isolating its DNA or genetic material, Gurdon was able to create the first clone — a tadpole, the website stated.

Gurdon took a frog egg and replaced its nucelus with the DNA of a specialized cell  to see if a new tadpole could develop. The egg with the specialized DNA was able to create a tadpole, demonstrating that cells were not as static as originally imagined.

In 2006, Yamanaka took this concept a step further using mice. He found that he could reprogram cells to revert back to a more generalized state and that by inserting certain genes into the cell, it could become an unspecialized cell to be used for stem cell research. An unspecialized cell can develop into any specialized cell.

The announcement brings to light the gains scientists have made in finding alternatives to embryonic stem cell experiments — a controversial aspect of the research, experts said.

BU biology professor Frank Naya said that while the findings were introduced to the scientific community six years ago, the announcement helps the public understand what scientists already know — embryonic cells are not the only option for stem cell research.

¨Now [cells] have the ability to do something else, to change their function,” Naya said.

The findings, he said, especially those by Yamanaka, have altered the way cells are viewed. The findings have also changed the way students are taught because they are now made aware that cells are not as fixed as once believed.

Reactions from BU Community Members

Many within the scientific community said they see great potential in the findings of Gurdon and Yamanaka.

¨The concept is novel and groundbreaking,” said BU post-graduate student Nicole Vega, 32.

Vega, who studies molecular, cell biology and biochemistry, said the findings have been incorporated virtually into all forms of cell study, especially at the graduate level. She also said that professors have made students at the graduate level aware of these findings.

Vega said that she hopes the undergraduate students are also being made aware of the findings because of the potential that bring to cell studies.

Finnegan Hewitt, 24, a third-year Ph.D. student in the cell and molecular program said that the findings of both Gurdon and Yamanaka debunk the ethical issues related to stem cell work.

Yamanaka’s finding of reprogramming cells without the use of cloning has made the controversial aspect of stem cell research less serious or important because it no longer involves destruction of embryos, Hewitt said.

Other students also said that the recent Nobel Prize award will impact the stem cell debate.

Abby Cecchine, a freshman in the College of Communication, said she did not know that stem cells do not only develop from embryonic cells as the research shows.

“What’s so great about this discovery is that the ethical controversy that used to surround stem cell research won’t be such an issue anymore,” Cecchine said.

Some members of the BU science community said that while the Nobel Prize award has been given to important research, the findings are no longer considered as groundbreaking.

Iker Etchegaray, 28, a neurobiology graduate student said he learned about Yamanaka’s findings in a molecular biology course in 2008. Etchegaray, unlike Vega, said that the concept discovered in Gurdon and Yamanaka’s findings had been taught and recognized for a while and that the recent publicity no longer plays a revolutionary impact in the scientific world.

The Limitations

 Yamanaka’s findings have a certain limitation, said Frydman. Although the work has demonstrated that cells can be reprogrammed, the cells he worked with were only of a specific type — tissue cells. Tissue cells are easy to access and not fully differentiated, meaning they can be used for stem cell research. However, other cells do not appear to have those capabilities.

“Theoretically, yes all cells can be reverted, but there are several practical limitations,” Frydman said.

Certain cells, such as neurons, or brain cells, are hard to isolate completely because of their extended size and complex features. As a result, trying to reprogram a neuron would be impractical, Frydman said.

Naya also said that in most cases, specialized cells such as neurons are still considered to be relatively fixed because it would be practically impossible to reprogram them effectively compared to less differentiated cells.

Potential: Tissue Regeneration

Several students and faculty members at the BU biology department said award is expected to influence a number of future research projects.

“I can see an increase in research in this area in years to come,” said Sarah Yunes, 22, a graduate student in the molecular, cell biology and biochemistry program.

Yunes said that in the labs, these findings have widened the possibilities of stem cell research and its applications in medicine especially in pharmaceutics and therapeutic research.

“What an amazing achievement,” said College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Jacqueline Hwang, who also was not aware of the findings. “Hopefully this will pave the way for further research into this discovery and make it a widespread technique that doctors can use to help patients.”

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