The Nobel Prize is the world-renowned commendation
bestowed annually on those who have made great contributions to the progress of humankind in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economic sciences. Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, of Kyoto University won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his "discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent." He shared the prize with John B. Gurdon of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, England.
Japan has yielded the biggest number of Nobel laureates among non-Western countries. A Japanese national has been named the winner almost annually in recent years, enticing people in the country to see it as something of a yearly autumn event.
Yamanaka serves as the director of the Center for iPS Cell Research & Application and a professor at the Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences at Kyoto University; as a senior investigator at the J. David Gladstone Institutes affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a professor of anatomy at UCSF; and as an honorary professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology. The 50-year-old academic has broad aspects of an athlete. He practiced judo at middle and high schools and played rugby while he was a Kobe University student. His present hobby is marathon and he jogs for 30 minutes every morning.
As he frequently got injured while practicing sports, he chose orthopedics upon enrolling at Nara University. However, shocked at the deformed joints of severe rheumatism patients, he made up his mind to become a medical researcher to find effective cures for them. He went to the United States to study at the J. David Gladstone Institutes. Coming back to Japan, he continued his study at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology before embarking on his research of iPS cells at Kyoto University.
Yamanaka succeeded in 2006 in creating iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells with various potentials like embryonic stem (ES) cells, using skin cells taken from mice. In the following year, he succeeded in developing a technology that can do the same by adding four carcinogenic genes to human adult skin cells.
Human ES cells can be obtained only in the early stage of placenta formation and their extraction can not only endanger the mother’s body but also involve some ethical issues. Yamanaka’s discovery paves the way for regenerative medical techniques free from such danger, which can be used, for instance, to create the liver and other internal organs for transplant from human adult skin cells.
Incidentally, the professor has chosen to spell iPS cells in lower case, hoping that they will come into popular use like “iPod.” However, there is a long way to go before such cells can actually be applied to medical treatment as they still have problems to be resolved such as rejection and canceration in the present stage.
This series features “partical use of iPS cells,” “ethical issues involved,” “Japan’s science budget,” “overseas reactions” and “successive Japanese Nobel laureates.”