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The Prize in Biology in Memory of Alfred Nobel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The days leading up to the announcements of the Nobel Prizes as well as the aftermath are gossip heaven for us scientists. We love to speculate who will win and after the announcements, we exchange wild conspiracy theories, talk about the painful snubs and pontificate on whether or not the recipients deserve the honors. Our dark side also tends to chime in and we exhibit some Schadenfreude when the more pompous leaders in a field are snubbed and some of us also salaciously look forward to another Nobel scandal.

The announcement that John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka are the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was a special treat for me. Usually, when I hear about the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prizes, the discoveries for which the recipients are honored either occurred decades ago or were in areas of biomedical research that are not directly my area of interest.

This year’s Nobel Prize was awarded to Gurdon and Yamanaka for their ground-breaking work, which showed that adult, mature cells can be reprogrammed to an immature, stem cell state. This discovery is the basis of much of the work in my own laboratory and as I write this, I know that stem cells are being cultured in my laboratory using the methods that Yamanaka developed only six years ago. When I read the paper by Takahashi and Yamanaka published in the journal Cell in 2006, I knew that I was witnessing a land-mark discovery by brilliant scientists, and many of us in the stem cell field have been expecting that Yamanaka would receive the Nobel Prize for his work, we just seemed to disagree about the year in which he would receive it.

John Gurdon’s work dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when he showed that nuclei from adult cells of the Xenopus frog could be transplanted into an enucleated egg and give rise to healthy frogs – the first example of animal cloning. Gurdon challenged the older paradigm that once a cell becomes mature, it cannot go back. His work was a conceptual revolution and many of his colleagues were initially resistant to embracing this paradigm shift. Gurdon’s seminal findings gradually convinced many other scientists to embrace his ideas and he inspired numerous other scientists to attempt cloning of other animals. The mechanisms of how the reprogramming occurred remained a mystery. How could a nucleus of an adult cell suddenly activate the transcriptional program of its embryonic past simply by being transplanted into an egg cell without a nucleus?

This type of nuclear reprogramming was also rather cumbersome, especially in adult mammals. Extracting the nucleus of an adult cell and then injecting it into a single egg cell required a lot of expertise and was not ready for a widespread use in stem cell laboratories. When Yamanaka published a method nearly 50 years later in which the reprogramming to the embryonic-like state could be initiated by merely implanting four genetic regulators into an adult mouse cell, the idea of reprogramming adult cells suddenly caught on. Within a matter of months, other laboratories confirmed the findings and his paper became one of the most highly cited papers in recent history. In a period of just six years, Yamanaka’s paper has been cited more than 4,000 times! Yamanaka then published a second paper in 2007, showing that adult human skin cells could be reprogrammed to the embryonic-like induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) state and this has lead to the generation of stem cell lines from numerous patients.

I think most stem cell biologist will agree that both Gurdon and Yamanaka deserve the Nobel Prize for their discoveries. Some may ask why the first author Kazutoshi Takahashi on the landmark 2006 paper was not a co-recipient. Others may wonder about whether the scientists who developed techniques to culture human embryonic stem cells should also have been honored, because without their hard work, Takahashi and Yamanaka may not have been able to culture the human iPSCs. Such questions common after all Nobel Prize announcements, and are in part due to the stringent requirement that the Nobel Prize can be shared by no more than three researchers, a requirement that should perhaps be reconsidered in our age of collaborative and networked discovery.

The question that bothers me, however, is why John Gurdon had to wait so long for his Nobel Prize. He had published many of the papers that convincingly documented successful reprogramming of adult Xenopus cells nearly 50 years ago. This was a pioneering discovery that challenged the paradigm of irreversible differentiation during development and had a major impact on the thinking of not just developmental biologists, but biologists from numerous disciplines.

The Lasker Foundation also recognized the importance of John Gurdon’s work, when it awarded the prestigious Lasker Basic Medical Research Award to both, Gurdon and Yamanaka in 2009. I think the obvious reason for Gurdon’s recognition in recent years is that Yamanaka’s method of reprogramming allowed for a much broader application of Gurdon’s idea to mammalian and human cells, in a manner that can will likely be used for regenerative therapies, disease modeling and screening of patient specific pharmaceutical agents.

If Yamanaka had not published his work on reprogramming mouse and human cells, would Gurdon have still received the Nobel Prize? This is a speculative question, but I think the answer is “No”, because the awarded Nobel Prize is in “Medicine or Physiology“. The title of the prize implies that the discovery has to have a link to medicine or normal physiology, but this makes it difficult to justify awarding the prize for ground-breaking discoveries in biology without a direct relevance for medicine or physiology. When the Nobel prizes were established more than a century ago, biology as an independent science was still in its infancy. The past century has brought us remarkable discoveries in biology, such as those in the areas of evolution or photosynthesis, which do not have a direct medical application. Just like the Nobel Prize in Physics honors great intellectual feats in the field of physics without documenting that these discoveries will lead to new technologies, biological discoveries should be similarly recognized without having to await imminent medical relevance.

Even though Nobel did not establish a Nobel Prize in Economics, the Sveriges Riksbank responded to the recognition for the need of such a Nobel Prize by donating the required money to the Nobel Foundation to establish “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel“. It has this convoluted name, because it is technically not a “Nobel Prize” and was not part of Nobel’s will, but it is still administered by the Nobel Foundation like all the other Nobel prizes and this is why in common parlance, we all refer to it as the Nobel Prize in Economics. I think that we have to realize there is a similar need for a Nobel Prize in Biology, to honor outstanding biological discoveries that stand on their own, without having to prove their medical relevance. Establishing the “The Prize in Biology in Memory of Alfred Nobel“, would be one way to recognize discoveries in biology and also foster even greater interest in this field, that will likely become one of the most important sciences of the 21st century.


Jalees Rehman About the Author: Jalees Rehman, MD is a German scientist and physician. He is currently an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the University of Illinois Cancer Center. His laboratory studies the biology of cardiovascular stem and progenitor cells, with a focus on how cell metabolism may direct the differentiation and self-renewal of regenerative cells. He can be followed on Twitter: @jalees_rehman and contacted via email: jalees.rehman[at] He has a blog about stem cell biology at Scilogs called The Next Regeneration. Some of his other articles related to literature or philosophy can be found on his personal blog Fragments of Truth. Follow on Twitter @jalees_rehman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:33 pm 10/9/2012

    Yes, we need a Nobel prize in biology. There should be one for psychology/neuroscience and geology/paleontology, too (paleontology can be in bio, too). Nobels for the forgotten fields! Oh ye forgotten, Nobel-less fields of science, throw off your chains! Unite! You have nothing to lose but the lack of a Nobel prize for your field!

    And no, I’m not a comunist in real life. That was just fun to write.

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  2. 2. Bob Grumman 7:49 pm 10/9/2012

    I think there should only be two Nobel Prizes, each awarded only when there is a qualified recipient available: one in science, one in the arts. For an Einstein or Yeats, not a Sinclair Lewis or the like in some science, and there are many Nobelists in the sciences that did good work but were three or more levels of magnitude less brilliant than Einstein. Or James Joyce, Jackson Pollock or Arnold Schoenberg, and several others who never got Nobels. (Actually, I’m not sure about Schoenberg, since my familiarity with music is much less than my familiarity with painting and literature–maybe Stravinski? Has there been an Einstein-level composer since the Nobels were given out?

    One addition: maybe there should be a Nobel for world-genius work in some field other than science or the arts like economics, political science, history or philosophy (Russell perhaps deserved a Nobel, but not in literature). I don’t know what general name I’d give to all these, though.

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  3. 3. dadster 12:55 am 10/10/2012

    You are right Rehman . The physicists were cornering most of the Nobel prizes in Science , dwarfing other branches. It’s time to stop it. Biology , microbiology and bio- technology, all have developed to such degrees and overtaken classical physics and chemistry who all seek glory in their fields prefixed by the three magical letters ” bio”, like bio- physics, bio- chemistry, bio- astronomy etc. to gain respectability. It’s a shame that there is no Nobel prize for biology.
    I would also like to add that there ought to be a Nobel prize for “mathematics ”
    too. More than collecting data from physical observations physics depend upon mathematical modeling for analysis and manipulation . Mathematics is the language of physics .. If computer- aided mathematical modeling hadnt
    improved, then physics couldn’t have progressed so much . It’s high time that corrective action to be taken on reviewing ,and revising the list of disciplines that Nobel prize is awarded .Otherwise, the respectability of the prize itself is at peril !

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  4. 4. grbobf 1:06 pm 10/10/2012

    The REALITY is that the Nobel Prizes are SUBJECT to the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will which established/endowed the Nobel Prizes. According to, “The Nobel Prizes, as designated in the Will of Alfred Nobel, are in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Only once during these years has a prize been added – a Memorial Prize – The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, donated by Sweden’s central bank to celebrate its tercentenary in 1968. The Board of Directors later decided to keep the original five prizes intact and not to permit new additions.”
    Furthermore, it seems that the privelege & responsibility for the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine is that of the Nobel Foundation and The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet (the “awarding institute”; also specified in Alfred Nobel’s will). The Nobel Foundation Board of Directors have the responsibility for interpreting, implementing and fullfilling the wishes of Alfred Nobel (per his will).

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  5. 5. Dov Henis 1:21 pm 10/10/2012

    Re some now esteemed science concepts…:

    Betrayal Of The Enlightenment Science Heritage

    Three glaring examples of betrayal of the Enlightenment science heritage:

    - The Higgs particle case: by plain common sense and data the origin of all mass in the universe is the minuscule pre-big-bang gravitons singularity…

    - Life nature and genesis: by plain common sense and data life is just another mass format …

    - The Genetics concepts: by plain common sense and data culture and natural selection are ubiquitous and genetics are their evolving RNA nucleotide progenies…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

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  6. 6. grbobf 1:26 pm 10/10/2012

    If a “Prize in Biology in Memory of Alfred Nobel” (or any other “field” not “covered” by one of the 5 Nobel Prizes – physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace – is warranted, then a suitable benefactor(s) to endow such a prize will be necessary – as was the case for the “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” – which was NOT ENDOWED by the will of Alfred Nobel, thus, is NOT the “Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences”.

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  7. 7. naya8 2:39 am 10/11/2012

    “How could a nucleus of an adult cell suddenly activate the transcriptional program of its embryonic past simply by being transplanted into an egg cell without a nucleus?”
    This fact can confirm that the “origin of life” is found in cytoplasm. I am not a researcher, but I am waiting to the moment that science can find the sorce or origin of life. My strong intuition and common sense sugest the idea of searching a molecule or a complex that is responsible for initiating life.Many biological facts support this idea, like a virus or a prion that enters the cytoplasm and start”life” only when they come in touch with cytoplasm.

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  8. 8. Bob Grumman 12:36 pm 10/12/2012

    So the Nobel committee has to obey the will–fine, start a better set-up for awarding prizes.

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  9. 9. rugeirn 1:57 pm 10/16/2012

    If we are to allow the dead hand of Alfred Nobel to be the sole controlling factor for the highest level of honor given in crucial areas of discovery and innovation, then we are doomed to see those honors become irrelevant and immaterial over time. As the nature of discovery and innovation changes, the honors given to the best work will have to reflect those changes. Otherwise, the inevitable result will be that the honor comes to reflect nothing but whatever happened to be the best work in areas that no longer are part of the cutting edge. The will of a dead man cannot be allowed to interfere with the very function the dead man wanted his will to serve.

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