MILAN (AP) — A Japanese researcher who found a way to give adults cells certain characteristics of embryonic stem cells, a process scientists say could eventually lead to cures for spinal cord injuries and other ailments, has been awarded the Balzan Prize for biology.

Shinya Yamanaka's prize is one of four — two for sciences, two in humanities — awarded this year by the foundation, with the goal of highlighting new or emerging areas of research and to sustain fields of study that may have been overlooked elsewhere.

Also winning awards were Brazilian mathematician Jacob Palis, who was cited for his contributions to the theory of dynamical systems, which draws from chaos theory and the butterfly effect, or the idea that small differences can create huge changes.

The humanities prizes go to Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, the father of microhistory, the study of the past based on a focus on the small scale, for his contributions to the study of ordinary people in Europe, and to German Manfred Bauneck for his history of the European theater.

Yamanaka has used its finding to treat spinal chord lesions in mice, though the process has not so far been applied in humans, said Nicole Le Douarin, an honorary professor at the College de France who has written a book on stem cells, and who presented the citation.

The process allows adult cells that have already been differentiated into, say, kidney cells or neural cells, be transformed back into cells with the characteristics of embryonic cells — a breakthrough that could provide an alternative to the controversial use of human embryos in stem cell research.

Medical researchers value such cells because they are master cells that can turn into any tissue of the body, and they expect the research to eventually lead to cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments.

Yamanaka works at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University, as well as the Gladstone Laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco.

Ginzburg, an Italian who teaches at the Scuola Normale Superior of Pisa university, is best known for his book, "The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller," based on Inquisition documents, about a heretic named Menocchio.

He was cited for "the exceptional combination of imagination, scholarly precision and literary skill," used to recount the beliefs of ordinary people in early and modern Europe.

Bauneck, of the University of Hamburg, was awarded the price for his history of the European theater spanning 2,500 years and his research on trends in world theater.

Each winner receives 750,000 Swiss Francs (euro577,000, $740,000). The prize has been reduced from $1 million Swiss Francs due to lower returns on investments.

The awards will be presented at a Nov. 19 ceremony in Rome, the International Balzan Foundation said.

The foundation, based in Milan and Zurich, was established by the family of Italian journalist Eugenio Balzan, who fled his homeland to Switzerland in the 1930s to oppose Fascist pressure on the media.

Each year, the Balzan prizes are awarded in different subjects. Next year's prizes will be awarded in the fields of ancient history, enlightenment studies, theoretical biology and the early universe.