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Beef up support for research of Nobel laureate Yamanaka

Publication Date : 10-10-2012


Kyoto University Prof. Shinya Yamanaka has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

We offer our heartiest congratulations to him for winning this prestigious prize.

It is the first time in 25 years that a Japanese won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The only other Japanese laureate in this field was Susumu Tonegawa, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 1987.

Yamanaka won the prize for developing a technology to reprogram somatic cells--a technology to return somatic cells such as skin cells to a state immediately after fertilisation--the beginning of life. He was awarded the prize jointly with British scientist John Gurdon.

After fertilisation, cells develop into specific cells of various tissues and organs as they grow and gradually age. Yamanaka's research reversed this process, which previously went in only one direction.

It was an epoch-making achievement. Since Yamanaka announced results of his studies in 2006, his name has been at the top of the list of front-running Nobel candidates every year.

Reprogramming cells

Yamanaka won the prize only six years after the announcement of his findings, probably due to the high expectations for the application of the technology in the medical field.

Cells reprogrammed using Yamanaka's technology are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. Organs and tissues damaged by diseases and injuries could theoretically be replaced with cells made from iPS cells. Such "regenerative medicine" is not just a dream anymore.

For instance, the technology could be used to treat a patient paralysed from the waist down due to a damaged spinal cord. Injecting nerve cells developed from iPS cells made from the patient's skin cells might regenerate his nerves and enable him to walk.

Although Yamanaka's studies are still at the basic research stage, the technology has the potential to completely innovate medical technologies in the future.

Kyoto University, where Yamanaka works, has obtained international patents on iPS cells as part of its efforts to stay at the top of research and development in this field.

Japan lags other nations

However, the United States and some European countries, for instance, have jumped ahead in research aimed at actually putting the technology to practical use. Yamanaka has repeatedly sounded the alarm about this development, saying, "The United States and Europe are way ahead in terms of research funds and human resources."

In these nations, major pharmaceutical companies have been spending huge funds to advance iPS research. A shortage of researchers is not a problem for them.

Japan lags behind, not only in the field of iPS cells, but also in research systems for new drugs and treatment techniques.

Yamanaka's Nobel Prize success is a prime opportunity for the whole nation to reinforce efforts to energise research labs.

Yamanaka's technology has also generated a new problem. Some observers have raised concerns that in research that fertilises eggs with sperm, both created using iPS cell technology, a new life would be born through an abnormal reproduction process.

Consideration of this issue from a bioethics viewpoint should not be neglected.


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