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James Thomson receives 2008 Massry Prize honoring stem cell researchers

MADISON James Thomson, director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research and John D. MacArthur Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, has received the prestigious Massry Prize for 2008. The award recognizes Thomson for his groundbreaking discovery made a decade ago of human embryonic stem (ES) cells and his subsequent work in developing induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation established the Massry Prize in 1996 to recognize outstanding contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health. Founded by Shaul Massry, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Southern California (USC), the nonprofit foundation promotes education and research in nephrology, physiology, and related fields. The Massry Prize includes a substantial honorarium and eight of its recipients have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize.

As the first to successfully isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells, Thomson's early work launched the field of stem cell science and was essential to the development of human iPS cells. "We are extremely proud of Dr. Thomson's accomplishments and his selection for the Massry Prize," states Sang Kim, executive director of the private, nonprofit Morgridge Institute for Research, part of the new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus. "We are fortunate he has chosen to continue his breakthrough research on stem cells at the Morgridge Institute as the first member of our interdisciplinary scientific team."

Thomson shares the 2008 prize with two fellow stem cell researchers, each honored for contributions to stem cell science that led to the 2007 discovery of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. "I am honored to be among the scientists selected for the Massry Prize," states Thomson, who believes stem cell science is moving forward even faster now.

"The problems we are addressing have become so complex that only through collaboration, and reaching across scientific disciplines, can we move research closer to making tangible improvements in human health," Thomson says. "Stem cells have the potential to help us find the root cause of disease, so we can prevent it, to test new drugs at the human cellular level and thereby reduce reliance on animal testing, and to offer regenerative therapies to patients."

Thomson predicts that within the next ten years, "We'll be able to make all clinically relevant cells in the body. But getting those cells into the body in a physiologically useful form is the most challenging part and involves every discipline in medicine."

UW-Madison Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin says the Massry Prize is welcome recognition of Thomson's pioneering work with human stem cells: "We're delighted, of course, that Dr. Thomson's accomplishments are recognized as the pioneering achievements that they are. Dr. Thomson's work has helped set a new biomedical field in motion with enormous potential to help improve the quality of our lives. His work deserves this kind of attention and more."

The new iPS cells are created by genetically reprogramming human adult skin cells. Like their source human ES cells, the iPS cells can become any type of cell in the body. Their discovery has helped spur the development of regenerative medicine and eased much of the controversy surrounding stem cell science by eliminating the need to use human embryos in the creation of pluripotent stem cells.

In addition to Thomson, the honorees for this year's award are: Shinya Yamanaka, professor and director, Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences, Kyoto University, Kyoto, Japan; and Rudolf Jaenisch, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Shaul G. Massry, professor emeritus at USC's Keck School of Medicine, says the 2008 prize that bears his name honors three individuals who were instrumental in discovering that cells from adult tissue such as skin could be reprogrammed back to an embryonic state. He calls the discovery "an amazing advance that opens broad new horizons for the application of stem cell technology."

Massry states 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 already have shown that iPS cells can provide tissue that is genetically matched to the recipient and not a target for immune rejection. Further, scientists already are using the technology to make patient-specific stem cell lines from individuals suffering from genetic diseases, enabling them to study how these diseases develop and to identify new therapeutic interventions.


Contact: Terry Devitt
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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