Table Speech

iPS Cells Open Doors to New Medical Science

February 8, 2017

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka

Center for iPS Cell Research and Application,
Kyoto University

 I owe what I am today to my father. Had he been alive, he would be 86 years old. He was the person who had guided me to the field of medical science. My father owned a small factory in Higashi Osaka. Being his only son, I think it was customary to take over his business. Since I entered high school, however, my father repeatedly told me to become a medical doctor. Unfortunately, he was injured at work and received a blood transfusion, which caused hepatitis. He developed cirrhosis and his condition deteriorated rapidly. Maybe that was why he wished his son to become a doctor.

 I entered medical school and became a resident physician in 1987. I still remember my father looked happy when I administered intravenous drips, despite his serious condition. But sadly enough, my father passed away at the age of 57 during my second year as a doctor. I was tormented by regret for not being able to save my own father. My experience guided me to pursue medical research so that I could one day cure patients suffering from intractable diseases and injuries.

 It was in 1989, the year my father passed away, when researchers in the USA discovered hepatitis C virus (HCV) which had claimed his life. Researchers around the world started to seek cures and now we have a magic bullet called Harvoni. Clinical trials proved that HCV disappeared from 99.9% patients who had taken this once-a-day pill for three months. It actually took as long as 26 years for a drug to be developed. The same applies to other medical research projects that could extend to several decades.

 Determined to become a medical researcher, I went back to graduate school and then, moved to Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco at age 31. Thanks to the excellent training and education programs, my research went smoothly with some significant achievements. I gained confidence as a researcher and returned to Japan in 1996 when I turned 34. But the reality back in Japan unnerved me.Scientific journals in the USA which had published many of my research papers submitted from San Francisco refused to do so once I was based in Japan. I was disillusioned and came to suffer from a disease which I named “PAD (Post America Depression)”. I was just about to give up my research when I was saved, once again, by my father. My mother called me and said, “Last night, your father appeared in my dream and said you should think the matter over.” I decided to continue my research.

 As a result, I developed the “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells” by introducing 4 genes into embryonic fibroblasts in mice and skin fibroblasts in humans. The iPS cells are capable of infinite self-renewal and differentiation into virtually any cell type to become different tissues and organs, including the brain, heart, blood and joint cartilage. Today, iPS cells are most commonly derived from blood cells.

 A decade from their discovery, iPS cells have become a powerful tool to advance regenerative medicine and drug development. Suppose a patient suffers from a disease of unknown cause, researchers will try to identify the cause and develop a therapeutic method. By utilizing iPS technology which reprograms human cells back to the beginning of life, researchers can create young and healthy organs or tissues to be transplanted and regenerate the patient’s defective function. We are currently working to promote clinical application of regenerative medicine and create hepatocytes, cardiac cells and neural cells to be transplanted to patients suffering from liver and heart diseases, Parkinson disease or spinal cord injury. Japan leads other countries in regenerative medicine utilizing iPS cells.

 We are also working to develop drugs by conducting experimental modelling of human disorders to define the mechanisms underlying diseases and to develop therapies for treating them. It took as long as 26 years to develop Harvoni to treat HCV. Now with iPS technology, researchers at pharmaceutical companies and university labs have a greater chance to develop new drugs to tackle hundreds of intractable diseases in a relatively short time.

 I work in regenerative medicine and drug development both in Japan and the USA. I have shuttled between the two countries every month for the past ten years. When I returned to Gladstone Institutes in 2007, after ten years, I was surprised to find a modern brand-new building. I was even more surprised to find all the research assistants were still working there, thanks to the long-term contracts. I learnt that in the USA, heads of research institutes, university Presidents and faculty Deans spend over half of their time on fundraising. Large amount of donations enable institutes to upgrade their facilities and employ their staff on a long-term basis.

 Being myself a director of a research institute, I launched the iPS Cell Research Fund in 2009 to ask for financial assistance to ensure long-term employment for our 500 research members and to upgrade the research environment. In addition to government assistance, we need to raise at least 500 million each year. I also participate in marathon races and call for donations. Our research is a time consuming process, while patients suffering from intractable diseases have not much time left. It’s a daunting task but I am determined to work hard in collaboration with my research staff. Let me ask for your generous support. Please call the toll free number 0120-80-8748 to get details on making a donation. Thank you.