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Yesterday (October 8) Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto, Japan, was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery that a person’s cells can be reprogrammed to pluripotency – meaning they have the ability to form most other cell types in the body. Yamanaka shares the prize with John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, UK, who is known as the “godfather of cloning.”

After stem cells were initially isolated from mice, Yamanaka’s team found four genes that, in combination, could be introduced to adult cells to turn them into embryonic-like cells. The resulting so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells could in turn be coaxed into mature cell types such as neurons and gut cells. Yamanaka’s findings, published in 2006, gave way to new cell-based models diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and other disorders.

Yamanaka’s reprogramming technique has also allowed researchers to study the early development of neurons derived from people with Rett syndrome. In 2010, Alysson Muotri’s research group at the University of California, San Diego, turned skin cells from people with Rett into pluripotent stem cells using Yamanaka’s methods.

“The data is already revealing a new biology,” writes Muotri in an email. The group has uncovered differences between human Rett neurons and those derived from animal models of the disorder, for example. “I believe this is a complementary new tool that will allow us to understand the molecular and cellular mechanism leading to the Rett condition,” he adds.

Importantly, Yamanaka’s fundamental discovery and the subsequent iPS cell work on Rett syndrome will also speed drug discovery, by allowing researchers to test candidate medicines directly on human neurons, Muotri says. Yamanaka’s winning the prize was “well deserved,” he adds.