Nobel Prize

Yamanaka Wins Nobel Prize for Ethics

by Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics & Director, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

Yamaka and Gurdon have jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent: that is, already specialized cells can be taken, and using iPS technology, transformed into unspecialized stem cells, which can be used for research and treatment. This technology may ultimately allow us to replace embryonic stem cells entirely in research and treatment thus avoiding ethical issues raised by the destruction of embryos for this purpose.

This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.

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Prize After Death

On Friday, Dr. Ralph Steinman died. On Monday, he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

This posed a problem for the Nobel committee. Per the award foundation’s bylaws, prizes may not be awarded posthumously. The committee met in emergency session, and resolved to avoid the heartless option of rescinding the dead man’s prize.

This seems a very sensible choice, in a situation whose details could have been designed by a philosopher to test the principles animating the ban on posthumous awards. Apparently Dr. Steinman died only hours before the committee met on Friday to award the prize to him (and to two other researchers, for their work on the immune system). The committee decided that, since it had not learned of Dr. Steinman’s death at the time of the selection, it had made a good faith effort to abide by the rule requiring recipients to live. (The demanding philosopher asks: so, if someone had rushed to call and inform the committee immediately after Dr. Steinman’s death, they would not have awarded it to him? Then, does the merit of an individual Nobel depend in part on the alacrity with which one’s survivors communicate one’s death? But we’ll leave such irritating queries to the side.) Still, two matters of ethical interest remain.

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