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British Nobel medicine winner told he'd never succeed at science in school

posted Oct 8, 2012, 8:36 AM by Mpelembe   [ updated Oct 8, 2012, 8:37 AM ]

British scientist shares the Nobel for medicine for his stem cell research and recalls being told to give up science at school.

LONDON, ENGLAND, UK (OCTOBER 8, 2012) (REUTERS) - Scientists from Britain and Japan shared a Nobel Prize on Monday (October 8) for the discovery that adult cells can be transformed back into embryo-like stem cells that may one day regrow tissue in damaged brains, hearts or other organs.

John Gurdon, 79, of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge in Britain and Shinya Yamanaka, 50, of Kyoto University in Japan, discovered ways to create tissue that would act like embryonic cells, without the need to harvest embryos.

In London, Gurdon held a news conference, to discuss the work he began more than 50 years ago.

"In the 1950's we really didn't know whether all your different cells had the same genes or they don't and that was the purpose of the experiments I was doing. And the outcome was that they do. So that means that in principle you should be able to derive any one kind of cell from another, because they have all got the same genes, that was I think the contribution I made at that time," he said.

Yamanaka capped off Gurdon's research in 2006 with an experiment that transformed "regenerative medicine" - the field of curing disease by regrowing healthy tissue.

"One of the points I would like to make is that this work I was involved in had no obvious therapeutic benefit at all. It was kind of purely a scientific question: Do all our cells have the same genes? There was no prospect of that being useful to people. But I think it is crucial in this country that we are able to support basic research and then you wait a while and sometimes a long while and it then turns out that nearly all discoveries of a basic scientific nature will turn out to have some useful consequence," said Gurdon.

All of the body's tissue starts as stem cells, before developing into skin, blood, nerves, muscle and bone. The big hope for stem cells is that they can be used to replace damaged tissue in everything from spinal cord injuries to Parkinson's disease.

Scientists once thought it was impossible to turn adult tissue back into stem cells, which meant that new stem cells could only be created by harvesting embryos - a practice that raised ethical qualms in some countries and also means that implanted cells might be rejected by the body.

In 1958, Gurdon was the first scientist to clone an animal, producing a healthy tadpole from the egg of a frog with DNA from another tadpole's intestinal cell. That showed developed cells still carry the information needed to make every cell in the body, decades before other scientists made headlines around the world by cloning the first mammal, Dolly the sheep.

Gurdon has spoken of an unlikely career for a young man who loved science but was steered away from it at school. He still keeps a discouraging school report on his office wall.

"The schoolmaster wrote the report, the main gist of it was that he had heard that Gurdon was interested in doing science and that this was a completely ridiculous idea, because there was no hope whatever of my doing science and anytime spent on it would be a total waste of time, both on my part and the part of the person having to teach him. So that completely terminated my science at school," he said.

The 79-year-old Gurdon will share the 1.2 million dollar Nobel Prize for Medicine money with Yamanaka. He envisages ploughing the money back into research, rather than frittering it away on luxuries.

"I work full time surprisingly at my advanced age, but it's nice to do that and I will do that. So it isn't going to be particularly productive to clear off to some exotic place and I don't have a yacht, so I see nothing in that, so it's a fairly normal life," he said.