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Wisconsin stem cell pioneer wins Faisal International Prize

January 21, 2011

James Thomson, director of regenerative biology at the Morgridge Institute for Research and a University of Wisconsin–Madison researcher since 1994, learned this week that he is this year’s co-winner of the prestigious King Faisal International Prize in Medicine.

Thomson is scheduled to receive the prize, established in 1977 by the King Faisal Foundation, from the king of Saudi Arabia during a March ceremony in the country’s capital of Riyadh.

Often recognized as the founder of stem cell science due to his groundbreaking discoveries of primate and human embryonic stem cells, in 1995 and 1998 respectively, Thomson now is among 57 scientists who have been selected for the Faisal Prize in Medicine during the past 33 years. Among all Faisal Prize winners, nine later were honored with Nobel prizes for work first recognized by the award.

The sons of King Faisal bin Abdul aziz Al Saud, ruler of Saudi Arabia from 1964-75, established the prize to recognize “dedicated men and women whose contributions make a positive difference.” Each year, peer-reviewed prizes are awarded in five categories with each recipient receiving a certificate handwritten in calligraphy summarizing his or her work; a 24-carat, 200-gram gold medal uniquely cast for each winner; and a cash prize equivalent of $200,000.

In describing Thomson’s contributions to medicine, the King Faisal Foundation noted that his continuing work to advance stem cell science, which led to his 2007 success in genetically reprogramming adult skin cells to an embryonic state, “revitalized interest in stem cell biology, with many laboratories re-investigating the possible use of these cells in the modeling and treatment of human disease.”

Sharing this year’s Faisal Prize in Medicine with Thomson is Shinya Yamanaka, a stem cell investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease at the University of California-San Francisco and professor at Kyoto University in Japan. The King Faisal Foundation recognized Yamanaka for his 2006 success in generating induced pluripotent stem cells in mouse cells, and for his 2007 simultaneous but independent discovery of human induced pluripotent stem cells.

Thomson joined the Morgridge Institute for Research as director of regenerative biology in 2008 as the first member of the new institute’s scientific leadership team.

The Morgridge Institute is the private, nonprofit biomedical research organization that is a partner in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a public-private initiative created under one roof to facilitate interdisciplinary research and breakthrough discoveries to improve human health. Along with its public twin, the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, the Morgridge Institute shares an innovative facility that opened last month at UW–Madison. For more information, visit