Professor Sir John Gurdon – Nobel Laureate
The entire Magdalene community rejoices at the award of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to our former Master and Honorary Fellow, Professor Sir John Gurdon, FRS. His pioneering work in the field of stem cell research, which began in the 1960s with a series of experiments in the cloning of frogs, has long been recognised by scientific awards from all over the world. Today he remains as research active as ever, often dining at High Table after a day’s work in the Wellcome/CRC Institute for Cell Biology and Cancer which he helped to establish in Cambridge, and which was named the Gurdon Institute in his honour in 2004.
For those of us privileged to know John as a colleague and a friend, it is especially gratifying that someone who carries his distinction so lightly, and so often with a self-deprecating smile, should be given the highest international accolade of all. On behalf of the whole College, I salute our Nobel laureate. Duncan Robinson, Master.
John Gurdon began his research career in Oxford at a time of pivotal importance in biology. Various researchers, many of them in Cambridge, were just then establishing the chemistry of inheritance. John was intrigued by one of the most pressing problems in biology – if every cell in an organism contains the same set of genes (messages), how is it that the many different kinds of cells in an adult come to develop differently from one another? One possibility was that particular genes are lost or at least somehow turned off irreversibly along any given line of cell development. That this is not the case was shown by John’s first breakthrough, published in 1962. He established that differentiated cells can still contain in a functional state all the genes necessary to control the development of an unfertilized egg up to the stage of reproductive adult. This fundamentally important point was shown by taking a nucleus from a fully differentiated cell in the gut lining of a tadpole, and injecting it into an enucleated egg, which then developed into a normal fertile frog. The task of extracting the nucleus from one gut cell (about one hundredth of a millimetre in diameter), and injecting it into an egg is easier said than done! Great skill and lots of practice are needed. John’s experiment was the first case of what came to be known as ‘cloning’ an animal – familiar to most people in the much later work on Dolly the sheep.
John, who moved from Oxford to Cambridge in 1972, went on to tackle the question of how particular genes are switched on in particular cells. He kept ahead of his competitors by imaginative micro-manipulation experiments with amphibian embryos, including the injection of single genes rather than whole nuclei into specific cells. Meanwhile Martin Evans, who joined John in leading the Welcome Trust and Cancer Research Campaign Institute of Cancer and Developmental Biology (now the Gurdon Institute), discovered ‘stem cells’ – isolated from mice. These cells can be cultured in the laboratory, and turn into many different kinds of adult cell, given the right conditions. The race was then on find the chemical signals that would turn adult cells of mammals into stem cells, especially with a view to their being used in medicine. It proved to be a hard problem to crack. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who shares the Nobel Prize with John, was the first to succeed – in 2006. After many abortive attempts, he was surprised to find that he could do it by adding just four genes. It turns out that in other vertebrates the formula doesn’t work, and John’s team is still trying to solve the problem for mature cells of amphibians. We hope so much that his team will win the race for this type of animal!
By Professor Peter Grubb (1960)
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