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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.

Before Yamanaka’s breakthrough, which built on Gurdon’s work, this research could only be done on cells derived from live human embryos. Many people objected to the creation of embryos for research, describing it as cannibalizing human beings. They even objected to the use of embryos no longer required for IVF. This led GW Bush to introduce laws that retarded the field for years. Yamanaka was able to overcome all those objections and resuscitate the field.

Yamanaka has opened the door to a completely new kind of medicine: regenerative medicine. Until now, dead or damaged tissue and organs, for example in the brain or heart, have been replaced by scar tissue. This results in loss of function, such as inability to talk or walk after a stroke, or heart failure after a heart attack. Regenerative medicine offers the prospect of replacing dead or damaged human parts with new functioning ones. It also opens a radically new way of studying the origin of disease: by creating tissue with disease, it can be experimented on in the laboratory, instead of in humans and animals. This is good for humans and good for non-human animals used in experiments.

This is as significant at the discovery of antibiotics. Given the millions, or more lives, which could be saved, this is a truly momentous award.

Additional Quotes

“This is a rare example of a scientific discovery that may solve more ethical problems than it creates. Many ethical objections to stem cell research have focused on the need to destroy human embryos. iPS cell technology may ultimately enable scientists to evade these objections by deriving pluripotent stem cells from adult tissue. For the moment, though, iPS cell research will need to run parallel to research with embryonic stem cells.”


Dr Tom Douglas, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
University of Oxford

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