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Gurdon and Yamanaka, the research victory

Read time: 6 mins

The announcement that the Nobel Prizes for Physiology and Medicine have been awarded to Sir John Gurdon (Cambridge) and Shinya Yamanaka (Kyoto) comes as no surprise. For decades now, genetic reprogramming of terminally differentiated somatic cells ("adult" cells) has been a hot topic and one of the most significant life science research themes. This has grown stronger throughout the years owing to the implications of research which focuses on the expansive area of detailed knowledge of gene expression regulation mechanisms (how the genetic patrimony expresses itself in different cell types) - possible applications of the aforementioned - concrete applications at present and as part of veterinary and human medicine. What do the two researchers therefore have in common? The theme of their research, genetic reprogramming, the return of somatic cells (adult) to the state of embryonic differentiation. In perspective, completely different: Gurdon's was once described as basic, now described as a wonder, Yamanaka's once referred to as applied, now as a production. The positive results achieved by the two researchers with regards genetic reprogramming already serve to teach, that it is ingenuous and naive (as often occurs in the heads of policy-makers) to apply this distinction within the same time period: there is but one research, research which is specific to the researcher's time and methods. Initially, and not out of choice, it is guided by curiosity, intuition, creativity and only, during a second stage, directed by the production of assets (molecules, cells, tissue,etc.). The two Nobel Prize winners also teach us things of great importance for civil society and youngsters. Not a great deal is needed in order to guide and support research into knowledge which may result in the generation of wellbeing (economic, health, environment, etc.), there is no need for mega laboratories, all you need is good scientific education which should begin at primary school.

Gurdon demonstrates this with his study on the history of biology (despite the opinions of his teachers who considered it a waste of time teaching him anything to do with science and discouraged him from pursuing a scientific career!) a history of the first experiments of Hans Spemann, the attempts using very few pincers and needles, to transfer the nucleus of skin in egg emptied from their nucleus and, in this way, achieving the growth of a tadpole. A paradigmatic result, which could signify the rewriting of books on the concept of the fixity of the genome (but, tragically, rumors already told that the genome was able to reprogram itself to the embryo): the genome of an adult cell once immersed in the cytoplasm of the egg cell reprograms itself - it is therefore not stable and unchangeable. Additionally, the egg cell must feature a substance able to carry out this process. Moving on from this time, the pincer and needle technique became more refined when we arrive at laser light, which would provide cloning results which were to amaze us over the years. The study of eggs cells, inside of which, a somatic cell nucleus was transferred to begin the cloning process (extremely important for veterinary animal production, for example to create series of animals used to produce drugs, the transgenic process of which would cost approximately one million euros, as an example) a research theme which would lead to the production of embryonic stems. Instead of transferring the egg cell with the somatic nucleus to a pseudo mother, for the birth of the clone, the reconstituted egg cell (the zygote) can be grown in a test tube and once cell multiplication of the embryonic cells has occurred (stem), they can then be differentially introduced into all cell types. The doors can be opened to cell treatments which establish a new way of dealing with medicine, regenerative medicine: even at present, there are multiple examples, ranging from various blood cell tumor treatments to artificial skin for serious burns. However, many other treatments can be considered, to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease and to repair necrosis in the instance of a heart attack. All pathologies can be tackled with the opportunities presented by a medic with all cell types at his disposal. The production of adult organism stem cells is not as simple and the somatic stem cells (adult) do not have the multiplication and differential ability that embryos posses. In addition to the caution which must be taken when using embryos in treatments (in actual fact, up to the present day, they are only used as part of experimental protocols and somatic cells are used in all treatments), their multiplication and differential ability is necessary for biologists. Now Shinya Yamanaka, who thanks to his studies on embryo stem cells (studies able to disclose everything to the scientific community, even to those colleagues dedicated to the study of somatic stem cells) is able to identify the master genes which control embryo stem cells and thanks to this information, creates a viral vector which contains four key stem cells; subsequently transferred from skin cells (fibroblasts) to achieve their reconversion into embryo stem cells. In actual fact he completed the work of Gurdon using resources from his era, viral vectors and genic components. Recognition that the scientific community is not ignorant to the issues of civil society: for many within the Catholic world, the use of embryos is not considered legitimate and therefore it is justified to find a way not to give in to what science dictates as a necessity (embryo stem cells) without clashing with the principles of the majority: embryo induced cells (iPS cells of Yamanaka) are the answer.

These two Nobel Prize winners also remind us that, at present, democracy, is moving in this direction, supporting research and scientific businesses, divulging results, debating them and together deciding the types of applications which can be considered legitimate.

A small annotation which sums up Italy, that which Adriano Buzzati Traverso called “if the Italians were intelligent” forming part of a touching, if extreme letter, which still holds true, that which states that a country which does not invest in research and youngsters involved in research: a country can only come out of decline if it invests in research; in 2001, upon completion of the work carried out by the Dulbecco Commission on stem cells, the very commission approved by the then Minister, Umberto Veronesi, it was written that only investment in research would enable a way out of the ethical deadlock (yes to embryos, no to embryos) and that investment should be applied in order to find an "artificial cytoplast", finding that something in the egg cell able to achieve or induce the genetic reprogramming process (the direction provided by Gurdon and which complimented Yamanaka's method). This invite remains as it was, written as part of a document, at the back of some drawer and which has seen zero financing, it remains unheard.

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