Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan has been chosen as one of two recipients of the Millennium Technology Prize. Yamanaka was named a 2012 laureate by the Technology Academy Finland (TAF) for discovering a new method to develop induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) for medical research — a technique that doesn’t rely on the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).
His method broke an impasse that had been threatening the progress of stem cell research since the first human stem cells were isolated in 1998.
Stem cells are the body’s master cells, with a natural ability to generate new cell types. Stem cells offer great promise for new life-saving medical treatments. But despite its potential to cure disease, stem cell research has been a source of controversy on moral and ethical grounds because stem cells have commonly been derived from human embryos.
Some five years ago, Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery broke this deadlock — between people who felt that stem cell research involves the destruction of a human life because it uses stem cells taken from human embryos on one hand, and on the other, people who argued that it was better to use embryos leftover from infertility treatments in any way that would improve human life since these would have been ultimately been thrown away.
For years, the deadlock threatened to stall stem cell research. But now, with Dr. Yamanaka’s new technique of creating iPSCs from adult cells, scientists all over the world are making great strides in medical drug testing and biotechnology. This progress in research can one day lead to the successful growth of implant tissues for clinical surgery and to treatments to combat currently incurable diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
In a video interview with TAF uploaded on YouTube, Dr. Yamanaka explains, “I made a long-term goal or vision for my laboratory. The vision is to make stem cells — not from embryos — but from a patient’s own cells — like skin cells or blood cells.”
“So, what I did first was identify as many factors as possible which play important roles in stem cells in embryonic stem cells,” he went on to explain. After I “identified many genes — many factors — I then found that by combining some of those factors, we can actually convert skin cells into stem cells,” he says.
Medical therapies, drug testing and toxicology testing
“There are three major applications of this technology,” the Japanese stem cell scientist explains. “The first one is stem cell therapy. So we’d like to make, again neurons from IPS cells and then we’d like to transplant those neurons into patients.”
“The second application is drug screening…we can use those cells to screen thousands of chemicals in order to identify new effective drugs for each patient. The third application is toxicology testing.”
“In the 21st century, medical biology will advance at a more rapid pace than before and personalized medicine will become readily available in the not too distant future,” Dr. Yamanaka says in a TAF press release.
“iPSC-derived differentiated cells could potentially treat sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injury. There are already plans to conduct a clinical trial on a few patients with age-related macular disease over the next few years,” he adds.
“My goals over the decade include to develop new drugs for intractable diseases by using iPS cell technology and to conduct clinical trials using it on a few patients with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes or blood diseases.”
The Millenium Technology Prize
The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded by the TAF, an independent foundation established by Finnish industry, in partnership with the Finnish government. Launched in 2004 and given every two years, the awards recognize “technological innovation that significantly improves the quality of human life, today and in the future.”
The laureates, who will follow in the footsteps of past awardees such as World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, will be celebrated at a ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, on June 13, where the winner of the Grand Prize will also be announced. The prize pool exceeds EUR1 million.
The second laureate is Linux creator Linus Torvalds is being recognized for his creation and ongoing contributions to the open-source operating system.
The laureates are nominated by an international selection committee — a distinguished network of leading Finnish and international scientists and technologists — and the TAF board makes the final choice of laureates based on the selection committee’s proposal.
According to the committee, the award was granted to Dr. Yamanaka to recognize his discovery of a new method and his development of necessary technical procedures to produce iPSCs from ordinary cell tissue. “The achievement has great impact on research in medicine and biotechnology,” the selection committee says. “Pluripotent stem cells are already used for medical drug testing and the growth of implant tissues,” it notes.
“Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery also has a fundamental ethical bearing as it eliminates the need for embryonic stem cells,” the committee points out. “He is unquestionably identified as the father of the innovation,” it concludes.
TAF president Dr. Ainomaija Haarla says, “We had many worthy nominations that we deliberated over, but ultimately we narrowed it down to these two candidates who have made such a significant impact in the field of computing and stem cell research.”
“I hope this announcement will lead to added recognition for these extraordinary scientists and the technologies that they have developed. These two men may well be talked about for centuries to come.”
The TAF is an independent foundation with a mission to support scientific research and new technologies that will benefit humanity and improve the quality of people’s lives. The foundation promotes Finland as a high-tech country by actively participating in global networks in the scientific community, business and governmental organizations.
The Millennium Technology Prize has been awarded four times:
• The inaugural Prize, 2004 went to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
• In 2006, the award was given to Professor Shuji Nakamura, inventor of revolutionary new light sources — bright blue, green and white LEDs and a blue laser.
• In 2008, Professor Robert Langer won the prize for his innovative work in controlled drug release and for developing innovative biomaterials for use in tissue regeneration.
• In 2010: Professor Michael Grätzel was awarded for his innovative developments in dye-sensitized solar cells. Grätzel cells are expected to play an extensive and significant role in renewable energy applications.
This year’s other laureate aside from Dr. Yamanaka is Torvalds, who is being recognized for his “unprejudiced creation of a new open source operating system leading to the largely exploited Linux kernel.”
“The free availability on the Web swiftly caused a chain-reaction leading to further development and fine-tuning worth the equivalent of 73,000 man-years,” the TAF says of its choice to award Torvalds. “Today the estimated number of users is 30 million. The achievement of Linus Torvalds has had a great impact on software development and on cultural and ethical issues of networking and openness of the Web,” the TAF says.
The impact of iPSCs
According to a video made for the Millenium Technology Prize, the simplicity of Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery and the technology he developed in 2007 was initially met with skepticism. “But within months, laboratories around the world adopted this groundbreaking approach to generating and studying stem cells — thanks to the fact that Dr. Yamanaka made his data available to all laboratories,” the TAF said in the video, uploaded on YouTube.
Dr. Yamanaka’s work didn’t only change the way laboratories around the world operate — his work also changed the way scientists think, says Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Gladstone Senior Investigator.
“We used to think that a cell in an adult — most cells in an adult — were fixed in their state. And that was that; they could never be changed,” Dr. Srivastava goes on to say. A former professor in the department of pediatrics and molecular biology at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, Dr. Srivastava now directs cardiac and stem cell research at the J. David Gladstone Institutes, an independent and nonprofit biomedical-research organization focused on research into cardiovascular disease, virology and neurological disease. The institutes are based in and associated with the University of California in San Francisco.
“And what Dr. Yamanaka’s work has shown us is that, in fact, that’s not the case. We have the power — given our current tools in science — to alter the state of cells fundamentally. Dr. Yamanaka was the first to show that it’s possible to alter cells from an adult state into a stem cell state. And since then, our lab — and many other labs around the world — have shown that, in fact, we can now change the fate of a cell from one adult cell type to another adult cell type,” he enthuses.
“We can put push the levers up and down the genome and now tell a cell what we want it to be,” he continues. “And we couldn’t do that — or thought not to do that — before Dr. Yamanaka’s work.”
“So his discovery has gone beyond finding a way to make stem cells,” Dr. Srivastava says. “It’s altered the way that we think about the fixed state of any cell in our body.”