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Meyenburg Cancer Research Award 2007 for artificial stem cell production

The Meyenburg Cancer Research Award 2007, with a purse of € 50,000, was awarded to the internationally renowned Japanese stem cell expert, Professor Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Yamanaka succeeded in reprogramming normal skin cells to function like pluripotent stem cells. There is a great deal of expectation being placed on the use of these "induced embryonic stem cells" for transplantation medicine and cancer treatment.

The award was presented at a scientific symposium on stem cell biology at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) on Monday, November 27th, 2007.

Stem cells have significant potential for applications in many fields of medical science. They might for example be used to replace insulin-producing cells lacking in diabetic patients, compensate the lack of dopamine in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease or substitute cardiac muscle cells that were destroyed by a heart attack.

However, physicians face a dilemma in their attempt to develop stem cell-based therapies: Stem cells taken from the tissue of an adult organism are not well suited for many forms of medical therapy. They are not “pluripotent”, which means that they are unable to give rise to different types of cells in the human body. For a long time, embryonic stem cells isolated from cells (blastocysts) in the very early development stage of the embryo, seemed to be the only cells with this capability.
Prof. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka beim Meyenburg Cancer Research Award Symposium in Heidelberg (Foto: NCT Heidelberg)
Prof. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka speaking at the Meyenburg Cancer Research Award Symposium in Heidelberg (Photo: NCT Heidelberg) 
Shinya Yamanaka’s pioneering work brings the efforts to produce pluripotent stem cells without using embryonic tissue an important step forward. Last year, the Japanese researcher from the University of Kyoto was the first researcher to reprogramme normal connective tissue cells from the skin of a mouse into pluripotent stem cells. By transferring only four genes, the skin fibroblast cells were transformed into cells with characteristics similar to those of stem cells. Yamanaka’s paper in this week’s issue of the scientific journal “Cell” describes how cells from human connective tissue can be reprogrammed to become embryonic stem cells, an achievement that has attracted much attention from scientists and the general public over the last few days.

Yamanaka’s results are also of great importance for cancer research: When the cells of the human body become cancerous, biological programmes are activated that might be similar to those induced by the gene transfer used by Yamanaka’s group. By decoding this programme, scientists will learn more precisely where to interfere with the mechanisms that lead to malignant cell growth, and how to counteract this fatal process.

As a tribute to the prizewinner, the German Cancer Research Centre organized a symposium featuring some of the best-known experts in the field of stem cell research. Kenneth Chien is one of the world’s leading experts in programming stem cells into cardiac muscle cells; Andreas Schöler and Christof Niehrs are specialists in the regulation of stem cells, Ron McKay is considered one of the most important experts in the development of stem cell-based Parkinsons’ therapies and Andreas Trumpp discovered a central mechanism which is used by stem cells to renew themselves.

Dr. Marion Meyenburg, the daughter of the sponsors of the award, Wilhelm and Maria Meyenburg, presented the award to Shinya Yamanaka at the end of the symposium. This distinction has been awarded for outstanding achievements in cancer research annually since 1981 and is one of the best-funded scientific awards in Germany.

Source: German Cancer Research Centre - 27.11.2007

Further information:
Press and Public Relations
German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ)
Im Neuenheimer Feld 280
D-69120 Heidelberg
Tel.: +49 6221 42 2854
Fax: +49 6221 42 2968
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