In 2005, when Dr. Bruce Conklin realized what his former colleague was attempting to do with stem cells, he remembers thinking: better him than me.
"I knew what he was up to, using genes to make stem cells. But I thought it was a crazy idea. I was thinking, 'I'm glad someone's trying it, but I'm glad it's not me,' " Conklin said with a laugh.
His colleague was Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who had worked with Conklin at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco as a postgraduate scientist in the '90s. Yamanaka was indeed trying to manufacture stem cells by genetically modifying adult cells. And he succeeded.
In 2006, a year after hinting to Conklin what he was working on, Yamanaka published a striking paper in the journal Cell, outlining in detail how he'd managed to transform a skin cell from a mouse into a stem cell. From there, he showed that the stem cell could be coaxed into becoming any other type of cell in the body.
A year later, Yamanaka used the same technique to create human stem cells. And the world of stem cell research has been forever transformed, scientists say.