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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Stem Cells and Quantum Computing – Nobel Prizes in Medicine and Physics Bring Together the Pas

Nobel prizes bring together past, present and future by recognizing and honoring transformative findings, regardless of when achieved. Thus, this year’s awards in medicine and physics bring together the past, present and future through stem cells and quantum computing. This year’s prize for medicine was shared by two researchers, one born in the year (1962) the other made his key findings. The Nobel committee explained how the two came together towards profound new understandings of stem cells:

"The Nobel Prize recognizes two scientists who discovered that mature, specialised cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body. Their findings have revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop.

John B. Gurdon discovered in 1962 that the specialisation of cells is reversible. In a classic experiment, he replaced the immature cell nucleus in an egg cell of a frog with the nucleus from a mature intestinal cell. This modified egg cell developed into a normal tadpole. The DNA of the mature cell still had all the information needed to develop all cells in the frog.

Shinya Yamanaka discovered more than 40 years later, in 2006, how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. Surprisingly, by introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, i.e. immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body.

These groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy."

The physics prize points towards the future transformation that will arrive with quantum computing. Computers and other digital tools today are revolutionizing science because they make it possible to quickly and easily create, view, record, preserve and analyze data in vast amounts never before manageable, as exemplified by the massive Blue Waters computer system going online at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at my family’s collective alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Today’s wonderful devices, however, are still far short of a current holy grail – the virtually unlimited computing power of quantum computing (early progress now arriving), and a concomitant exponential increase in research "in silico." Thus, the Nobel committee explained the possible future transformations that will arrive on some tomorrow thanks to the findings of the current laureates and the work many others will add:

"Both Laureates work in the field of quantum optics studying the fundamental interaction between light and matter, a field which has seen considerable progress since the mid-1980s. Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of super fast computer based on quantum physics. Perhaps the quantum computer will change our everyday lives in this century in the same radical way as the classical computer did in the last century."

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