Congratulations to John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka on winning the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine! They received the award today for their “discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.” In other words, these scientists figured out how to turn a normal adult cell, such as a skin cell, into a stem cell that has the potential to become any other type of cell in the body. Read below to learn more about stem cells and how they are revolutionizing medical research.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are special because each is like a blank slate. Once it’s given the proper instruction, a stem cell can specialize and become any type of cell in the body—brain, heart, muscle, and more. Stem cells also have the ability to reproduce themselves indefinitely, renewing the supply.
Are there different types of stem cells?
Embryonic stem cells only exist during an organism’s development, when it is an embryo. These cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the capacity to become any cell type in the body.
Adult stem cells exist in fully developed organisms. They are more limited than embryonic stem cells—they are multipotent rather than pluripotent. These stem cells usually can only become a few types of specialized cells, based on the tissue from which they originate.
Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are pluripotent, much like embryonic stem cells. iPSCs are produced in the laboratory by genetically reprogramming any adult cell, such as a skin cell.