Nobel laureate: We've just scraped the surface on the potential of stem-cell therapy

July 4, 2014 by Martin Evans
The man who changed stem-cell research. Credit: Cardiff University, CC BY

Martin Evans received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007 for "for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells".

Mohit Kumar Jolly, researcher at the University of Rice and contributor to The Conversation, interviewed him at the 2014 Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting this week.

What is so exciting about cellular reprogramming and its applications in medicine?

First, it challenges what we have believed in for so long that can only follow one path – differentiate from being , say, embryonic or adult, to more differentiated ones, say, or . We now know that they can revert back from being to be stem cells. This is a fundamentally novel concept. We can now confidently say that each state of a cell is not stable, but "meta-stable".

Second, I believe this opens many therapeutic avenues. For example, soon in the future, one can take patient's own cells from an organ and reprogram them to being cells of some other organ which he or she needs to recover from an injury or disease. Shouldn't one in future have the option to choose what kind of cells are injected to cure certain diseases?

I think neither mine nor your generation would live long enough to see the full potential of stem-cell therapy – we're still scraping the surface. It can offer personalised medicine a big boost.

Why don't cells keep on randomly changing their identity, for example, a heart cell becomes a neuron or vice-versa. What prevents this?

That's a very good question, and I believe we still have to find out an exact answer to that. My guess is that since reprogramming is so inefficient, maybe there is some of it going on as we speak, but it's too weak to have our eyes replaced with teeth or vice-versa. There are other factors too that might be playing a role in "defining" the identity of a cell – for example, the environment around a cell. The body is well-designed to prevent itself from such chaos.

Do you also see cancer as a "reprogramming" process?

That's an intriguing parallel you draw, and I certainly agree with it to some extent. We all know now that are normal cells having lost some controls that have. We have also seen that some tumours start to produce their own hormones which their normal counterparts do not. So, it can be called reprogramming.

Reprogramming has also been in news notoriously recently. Two Nature papers that showed that differentiated cells can be reprogrammed by physical pressure or acid treatment were retracted this week. What's your take on that?

I was surprised why Nature accepted those papers. The data in that paper did not seem to indicate what it was meant to. It looked weird. We're not very sure whether it was deliberate fraud or over-enthusiastic misinterpretation; but clearly the editorial process was very questionable – the peer-review was not good enough.

What is your advice to scientists and, in particular, young ones?

You should not believe in all that you read. Learn to interpret independently. This advice becomes much more necessary in today's world of social media and internet, which is overloaded with information, some of which can be very misleading. Everyone got excited about the stem cells generated by acid treatment, how many of you actually interpreted their data? So, be careful!

I rate science as a better understanding of the fundamental principles of life and nature. I can understand why scientists often tend to work towards application-oriented science, but I believe we have many basic science questions to understand even today.

Explore further: Embryonic stem cells: Reprogramming in early embryos

Related Stories

Embryonic stem cells: Reprogramming in early embryos

March 26, 2014

An Oregon Health & Science University scientist has been able to make embryonic stem cells from adult mouse body cells using the cytoplasm of two-cell embryos that were in the "interphase" stage of the cell cycle. Scientists ...

One step closer to cell reprogramming

May 6, 2014

In 2012, John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamakana were awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering that adult cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent ones (iPS); the cells obtained are capable of behaving in a similar ...

Recommended for you

Secrets of a heat-loving microbe unlocked

September 4, 2015

Scientists studying how a heat-loving microbe transfers its DNA from one generation to the next say it could further our understanding of an extraordinary superbug.

Plants also suffer from stress

September 4, 2015

High salt in soil dramatically stresses plant biology and reduces the growth and yield of crops. Now researchers have found specific proteins that allow plants to grow better under salt stress, and may help breed future generations ...

Ancient walnut forests linked to languages, trade routes

September 4, 2015

If Persian walnut trees could talk, they might tell of the numerous traders who moved along the Silk Roads' thousands of miles over thousands of years, carrying among their valuable merchandise the seeds that would turn into ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

russell_russell
not rated yet Jul 05, 2014
Second, I believe this opens many therapeutic avenues. - Evans

Yes. Understatement. The following is destiny to be the single biggest industrial complex of the world - your own blood:
http://medicalxpr...lls.html

Cancers cells have no repair. There is no need.
No repair no life. You can not host cells not bothered with repair for very long.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.