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Every year a Nobel Prize is awarded in the field of Physiology or Medicine, to individuals who have made significant contributions in this field. Last week, the prize was awarded to two scientists: Sir John Gurdon from the UK and Shinya Yamanaka from Japan.

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Stem cell research is one of the most controversial areas in modern science. Some consider it an ethically questionable intrusion on potential life, while others see it as a breakthrough that may hold the cures for previously untreatable conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

The two winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine are leading the way in developing a system of cell research that begins with mature cells, removing the need for live human embryos.

In 1962, Sir John Gurdon replaced the nucleus of a frog's egg cell with the nucleus of a mature cell taken from the intestine of a tadpole. The egg went on to develop into a perfectly healthy cloned tadpole, revealing that the genomes of mature cells still contain the DNA information that enables development into any other type of cell. Thirty-four years later, Shinya Yamanaka (pictured) isolated the specific genes that, when introduced to a mature specialised cell, could return them to a pluripotent (or immature) stem cell stage.

Pluripotent stem cells are those that have the ability to develop into any tissue type. In current stem cell research, pluripotent stem cells are isolated from an embryo and cultured in a lab. Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are made from mature cells that have been returned to an immature state. These cells can be used to regenerate damaged body parts, pinpoint the reasons for unhealthy cells and be put into therapeutic use for patients with spinal injuries, brain and tissue damage.

Gurdon and Yamanaka’s discoveries could prove vital in further stem cell breakthroughs, helping put to bed the ethical and moral objections that have blocked financial support in the past.