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The 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded to stem cell researchers John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka of Britain and Japan. They take the first Nobel prize of the year, with a flurry to follow over the next week.
Judges in Stockholm said on Monday that the medicine prize had been awarded to the researchers "for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent," saying that this discovery had "revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop."
Gurdon and Yamanaka are stem cell researchers who are seeking ways to obtain embryonic stem cells - a kind of genetic blank slate, cells that can be 'programmed' to take on many different forms and perform different functions - from the cells of an adult. Embryos themselves are another more controversial source of stem cells.
"We are trying to find ways of obtaining embryo cells from the cells of an adult," Gurdon writes on his Gurdon Institute website. "The eventual aim is to provide replacement cells of all kinds starting from usually obtainable cells of an adult individual."
The British scientist also said such a system was advantageous because the stem cells could be obtained from the patient themselves, reducing the risk of rejection when they were employed as a treatment.
Stem cells appear to have potential to treat a wide range of illnesses, with a major barrier to the research the ethical implications of obtaining the cells from unborn foetuses.
A busy week in the Swedish capital
This year's laureates in the field of physics will be named on Tuesday, with chemistry following on Wednesday and perhaps the most famous Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded on Friday. As is tradition, there is no set date for the Nobel Prize for Literature - but that will almost certainly fill the gap in the schedule on Thursday. The economics prize winner or winners will be named on October 15.
All the prizes will be awarded in Stockholm simultaneously at a December 10 ceremony.
That date marks the anniversary of the 1896 death of chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who set up the Nobel foundation towards the end of the nineteenth century.
The prize money for Nobel laureates has been reduced this year by 20 percent to 8 million kronor (roughly 930,000 euros, $1.21 million), with the Nobel Foundation citing lack of resources.
One winner of last year's peace prize was Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; she was named the joint laureate four days before a Liberian general election, which she won.
msh/sej (AFP, dapd, dpa)