Sir John B Gurdon (Christ Church, 1952) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year for his work which demonstrated that specialisation of cells is reversible — a finding he made while at the University of Oxford.
Gurdon won the award along with Shinya Yamanaka. Their discovery showed that mature human cells can be “reprogrammed” to become immature cells again, so that they’re capable of developing into any type of tissue found within the body. The finding has gone a long way in shaping the way biologists and medics think about cell development.
The finding was the result of an iconic experiment carried out at Oxford's Department of Zoology, and subsequently published in 1962. In the experiment Gurdon replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. The modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole, showing that the DNA within the mature cell contained all the information required to develop any kind of cell found in the frog.
Like all revolutionary science, his results met with early resistance among his peers, but as other researchers began to replicate his experiments the idea was embraced. Now, the concept lies at the core of many exotic strands of biological science, including cloning and stem cell research.
see how purely basic research, originally aimed at testing the genetic identity of different cell types in the body, has turned out to have clear human health prospects.”
Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society and winner of the 2001 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine, explained to the Guardian that Gurdon’s work had "changed the way we understand how cells in the body become specialised, paving the way for important developments in the diagnosis and treatment of disease.”
Gurdon arrived at the University of Oxford in 1952, initially reading Classics at Christ Church before switching to Zoology. He went on to receive his doctorate from the University in 1960. After a stint at the California Institute of Technology, he returned to Oxford as assistant Lecturer of Zoology in 1962.
He left for Cambridge in 1972, and has since served there as Professor of Cell Biology and Master of Magdalene College. Fifty years on from that iconic experiment, he continues to spend time in the lab.