Nobel Prize 2012 for stem cells to Yamanaka & Gurdon is well-deserved, but why an empty third slot?

Nobel PrizeStem cell revolutionaries Drs. Shinya Yamanaka and John Gurdon have won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Gurdon cloned for the first animal, a frog, and Yamanaka produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), a kind of stem cell with the power of pluripotency, but derived from ordinary non-stem cells. Gurdon’s work was based on the technique of nuclear reprogramming based on somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).

Both men are well-deserved winners of the Nobel Prize for their work investigating how cell fate can be changed in fundamental ways.

Interestingly, three people can share a Nobel Prize, but this one only goes to two. Why?

There are quite a number of deserving scientists, true pioneers in the stem cell field who could have been chosen for that third slot. However, it went empty, which I find very interesting.

Why didn’t the Nobel committee give it to Jamie Thomson, who was the first to make human embryonic stem (ES) cells and also made human iPS cells very early on (although a year after Yamanaka made the seminal discovery in mice) ?

Martin Evans, a discoverer of mouse ES cells, of course already won the prize in 2007 he couldn’t get it again. Many folks felt that Gail Martin was unfairly left out of that Nobel Prize.

What about Rudy Jaenisch? He has done pioneering work in stem cell research and in cloning, but in mice.

In the end we may never know why the Nobel Committee left that third slot empty, but it is an intriguing question.


  1. Without taking anything away from Yamanaka’s tremendous accomplishment, I still think that McCulloch and Till’s brilliant demonstration of hematopoetic stem cells provided an essential waypoint without which Yamanaka’s work probably would not have been done, and that they should first have received the prize, perhaps shared with Gurdon. The same could and should be said for Weintraub’s demonstration of MyoD-mediated cell fate reprogramming, though of course he tragically died before the Nobel committee could recognize his pioneering work. I’ll choose to believe that the “empty seat” was set aside for Hal.

  2. As to the third spot, I find it interesting that you have left out Ian Wilmut and/or Keith Campbell (who sadly died two days ago) from your list. Given that the prize was for nuclear reprogramming (rather than the establishment of ES cells), it would seem that Ian would have been a more appropriate person for the third slot that the others you mentioned. Until Ian’s work in the mid 1990’s, one could have argued that John’s work in frogs simply was due to a peculiarity of amphibians having greater nuclear plasticity. However, this was put to rest by Ian’s work, and thus, in my view, Wilmut’s work provided an important stone that ultimately led to Shinya’s work on iPS cells in 2006.

  3. I concur with the above sentiments. I honestly thought that both Jaenisch and Thompson should have gotten it. This kind of reminds me of the 1989 Nobel Prize where I would have thought that Robert Weinberg would have been a shoo-in, but sadly he was not named. Isn’t it a little ironic that both Weinberg and Jaenisch are both great friends and are at MIT, yet I feel both were wrongly denied of the prize.

  4. I saw more than one comment on Monday claiming that this was the “ethical prize” – that is, the Nobel committee was making a statement by not giving the third slot to anyone working on hESC.

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