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Massry Prize honors groundbreaking stem cell researchers

A trio of researchers has been named recipients of the 2008 Meira and Shaul G. Massry Prize for their work in creating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells—whose ability to become any type of cell in the body helped spur the development of regenerative medicine.

The Massry Prize, which includes a substantial monetary award, recognizes outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and advancement of health. The recipients will give lectures at the Institute for Genetic Medicine on Nov. 20 at noon.

The honorees are: Shinya Yamanaka, professor and director, Center for IPS Cell Research and Application, Institute for Integrated Cell Material Sciences, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan; James Thomson, the John D. MacArthur Professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; and Rudolf Jaenisch, Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Shaul G. Massry, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, said that when human embryonic stem cells were first discovered in 1998, it was clear that they would have “the potential to revolutionize medicine and provide a powerful discovery platform to study human diseases, to develop new drugs, and to provide a renewable source of healthy human tissue for use in transplantation therapy to treat a range of currently intractable conditions associated with cell loss or damage.”

He noted that the discovery that cells from adult tissue such as skin could be reprogrammed back to an embryonic state “is an amazing advance that opens broad new horizons for the application of stem cell technology.”

Massry said the 2008 Prize that bears his name honors three individuals who were instrumental in that discovery.

Yamanaka first made the observation that the introduction of four genes into mouse fibroblasts was sufficient to convert them to pluripotency—the ability to develop into any tissue of the body. This breakthrough made cellular reprogramming far more accessible in a conceptual, practical and also ethical sense, since it avoided the controversy associated with using embryonic stem cells.

Simultaneously with Yamanaka, Thomson showed human fibroblasts could also be reprogrammed to pluripotency via simple genetic manipulation.

Thomson’s original discovery of human embryonic stem cells nearly 10 years ago provided much of the impetus for the ongoing revolution in stem cell research; moreover, his groundbreaking work on human stem cells set the stage for the achievement of human iPS cells.

Rudolf Jaenisch provided much conceptual understanding of the basis of cellular reprogramming and was the first to provide proof of concept of the application of reprogramming fibroblasts to iPS cells, and using iPS cells to provide therapy for a disease in an animal model of a human disease.

Massry said that techniques pioneered by this year’s winners are being refined worldwide to enhance their safety and applicability and that experiments in animal models of transplantation therapy have already shown that iPS cells can provide tissue that is genetically matched to the recipient and therefore is not a target for immune rejection.

Further, scientists have already used the technology to make patient-specific stem cell lines from individuals suffering from genetic diseases, enabling scientists to study how these diseases develop and to identify new therapeutic interventions. iPS technology is likely to become the fastest route to the development of banks of pluripotent human stem cells that provide close matches to patients requiring transplantation therapy, said Massry.

Massry Prize honors groundbreaking stem cell researchers

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