Shinya Yamanaka, PhD, MD, it was announced today, has just won a much-deserved Nobel Prize in Medicine for an astonishing discovery. In 2006, Yamanaka's Japan-based scientific team altered cells from mouse skin so they could do just what embryonic stem cells do: replicate themselves indefinitely, or differentiate into any of the 200 or so different cell types in the body. The reprogrammed cells could even regenerate an entire living mouse.
Scientists can now produce these so-called "induced pluripotent stem cells," or iPS cells, from numerous cell types, and not just in mice but in humans, too. Heart or nerve cells produced from iPS cells derived from a donor's skin have the same genes - and, accordingly, the same cell-surface markings - as the donor's skin, heart or brain cells. So they're both genetically and immunological indistinguishable from the patient's own cells. It may someday be possible to replenish worn-out organs and tissues without any worry about immune rejection of the new biological material.
Sound newsworthy to you? It did to me.
In August 2006, I was a freelancer working on an article for Nature Medicine about scientific efforts to nudge adult cells to an embryonic state, thereby avoiding the need to destroy embryos in order to get at their resident stem cells. These attempts, while offering promising hints, were tripping on all kinds of technical obstacles.
Then I came across the still-embargoed paper in Cell in which Yamanaka's group published their results, and I managed to set up an interview with him at some (for me) ungodly hour of the night. He was both very polite and very modest. His most surprising response came when I asked whether he'd been getting deluged with calls.
"Not really," he replied gently. I had been one of only a few science journalists who'd gone after him.
My Nature Medicine editors let me squeeze 185 words on his findings into the back half of my 1,000-word article. But just scratching the surface of the discovery's importance would take more like 3,000 words. So I peddled the story to a London-resident New Scientist editor I'd worked with before. He told me they'd just wrapped up an entire issue devoted to exposing "alternative" stem-cell science as the province of nutball lunatic charlatan wack jobs (my words, not his, but that's how it hit me). Persisting, I sent him a copy of the study, which a colleague of his then ran past a high-octane scientific Emerald Isle contact: one Ian Wilmut, PhD, celebrated cloner of Dolly the Sheep.
Even Wilmut hadn't laid eyes on Yamanaka's paper yet. But the instant he did, he got excited. So did my New Scientist editor: I received a call at yet another ungodly hour of the night asking how soon I could stitch something together. A trans-Atlantic effort led rapidly to a lengthier article. (John Gurdon, PhD, Yamanaka's co-recipient of today's Nobel, was also featured in the piece.)
By sheer luck, I'd stumbled on a feat that flew in the face of entrenched conventional wisdom – and I had trouble convincing science editors that it was worth their taking seriously. But that was one Nobel eyeblink ago.