This year’s Nobel Prize winners for Medicine both come with interesting stories behind them, and very contrasting views on ethics.
The British winner, Sir John Gurdon, discovered, against conventional understanding, that cell development is reversible. Gurdon was knighted in 1995, is a Fellow of the Royal Society, of Churchill College and has a Cambridge research institute named after him. The interesting story behind this is reported in The Times today:
‘He nearly did not become a scientist at all. After only a term, he came ‘bottom of the bottom form’. ‘Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist. On present showing, this is quite ridiculous,’ wrote Mr Gaddum, the teacher whose name Sir John still remembers. He then went on to describe the future Nobel laureate as being unable to ‘learn simple biological facts’, arguing that continuing to teach him ‘would be a sheer waste of time both on his part and of those who have to teach him.’
This report disheartened Gurdon so much that he applied to Oxford University to do classics
. Nevertheless, he was offered a place to study science and the rest, as they say, is history. Gurdon still keeps the school report framed in his office, perhaps as a constant reminder that he was right to follow his own dreams and self-belief, and not to follow convention.
Gurdon’s work proved that the body’s cells could change once they had specialised as nerve, skin or muscle cells. He proved this by replacing the nucleus of a frog egg cell with a nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. This entity then developed into a normal tadpole.
However, because of the lack of understanding of how cell development worked, research on embryos seemed to be the only way forward. So scientists concentrated on working with human embryos. This of course has been actively encouraged in the UK where there are few ethical qualms, or legal restrictions, for researching on and destroying embryos in the name of scientific research. The long-term outcome of Gurdon’s work was the cloning of a sheep to create Dolly, which led to even more demands to work on embryos, this time to clone them, albeit with little success with any therapies thus far.
This is where the Japanese winner Yamanaka, comes in. His interesting story was reported in the New York Times a few years ago, when he was doing stem cell research himself:
‘He looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.
‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realised there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,’ said Dr. Yamanaka, a father of two and a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. ‘I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.’
Like Gurdon, Yamanaka broke with conventional wisdom and after years of searching, he found an alternative. He stunned the medical research world by announcing that his team had successfully turned adult skin cells into the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells without using an actual embryo.
The result of Yamanaka’s work was, in some ways, the opposite to Gurdon’s. Many famous scientists – including Ian Wilmutt who created Dolly the cloned sheep – turned away from using embryos and instead concentrated on working with Yamanaka’s ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’. The results in terms of research and real therapies have been well documented. (see here and here too)
In an opinion column in the French medical daily Le Quotidien du Médecin, Prof Claude Huriet commented last year that:
‘While innovations in the field of the life sciences arouse ethical reactions often regarded as obstacles to innovation, it sometimes happens that these ethical objections stimulate the imagination of researchers and finally lead to progress! Who could quarrel with that?’
Even Julian Savulescu, the controversial and liberal bioethicist at Oxford University, recognises that Yamanaka has achieved great scientific advances within an ethical framework:
‘Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research…he deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine but a Nobel Prize for Ethics’.
For once, I think we can agree with Savulescu.