Towards modern alchemy


Monday, October 8th 2012 could have been a morning like any other in the Gurdon lab, save for a few unique exceptions. To begin with, this was the first time my supervisor, Sir John Gurdon, had ever been late to one of our weekly lab meetings. John is ever punctual and almost never late for anything, nonetheless our own group meetings – he can oftentimes be found minding his watch as lab members trickle into the room. When he eventually joined the meeting that morning, after having taken a ‘complicated phone call’, nothing further was mentioned and he proceeded to ask questions about the topic being presented. However, shortly thereafter with the announcement at 10:30am, the director of the Gurdon Institute, along with what felt like half the institute, burst through the doors to our meeting room, exclaiming, “John, do you realise that you have just won the Nobel Prize!” As waves of cheering could be heard throughout the floors of the institute, it became readily apparent that none of us would be able to focus much for the remainder of the day.

What John accomplished over 50 years ago – cloning the first animal, the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), 30 years before the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep – was revolutionary and many in developmental biology did not believe his results at first. Nevertheless, according to the Nobel Assembly, the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for “groundbreaking discoveries [that] have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.”

Not bad for a young high school student who, while at Eton in 1949, had said about him in a now infamously scathing report card: “I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous…it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who have to teach him.”

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is a bit curious too in terms of timing. This particular prize represents one of the longest times to the award (Gurdon at 50 years) and one of the shortest (Shinya Yamanaka at six years). Furthermore, John’s seminal paper describing the famous cloning experiment was published the very year that Yamanaka was born (1962).

It is still startling to think that Yamanaka’s discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells was published only six years ago. With iPS technology, human embryos may no longer be needed to generate embryonic stem cells; rather a handful of factors applied to almost any cell can transform it into an embryonic-like stem cell that can then go on to become almost any tissue in the human body. In just these few years – during which I went through undergrad and medical school studies, and am now embarked on my PhD – this technology has already revolutionised the fields of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. To see these metamorphoses in the span of my professional education thus far has been both startling and amazing. If this is what just half a decade has brought, what will the next few years bring in terms of scientific discovery and innovation?

My current PhD work in the Gurdon lab is looking at the interface between John’s technique, nuclear transfer, and Yamanaka’s, induced pluripotency, which are both methods of generating embryonic-like cells. Specifically, I am screening for and identifying factors – those missing links between the two systems – via nuclear transfer that can improve the generation of iPS cells. If perfected this could bypass the need for stem cells from human embryos in research and therapy. From this work, I harbour a growing vision for the future of regenerative medicine.

A new revolution in modern medicine is about to dawn. In the coming years, we will be able to create customised cell lines to screen drugs in ways we never could before. In the coming decades, additional advances on these technologies will allow us to regenerate or even replace lost tissue or organs. The day will come when, if a patient needs new heart tissue, we will be able to grow it from his or her own skin cells; modern alchemy, if you will. Of course, there are still limitations that must be overcome before these technologies can be applied safely to patients, but we are moving ever closer to the realm of therapeutic possibility.

These are certainly exciting times that we live in – for science, medicine, and the human frontier.

*Stan Wang [2011] is doing a PhD in Surgery.


One response to “Towards modern alchemy

  1. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after reading through some of the post I realized it’s new to me.
    Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back

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