STOCKHOLM – Shinya Yamanaka, cowinner of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology, says he is committed to using his expertise in deriving multipurpose stem cells to cure debilitating diseases.
In an annual lecture at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm ahead of the Nobel awards ceremony Monday, Yamanaka explained Friday how a series of unexpected discoveries led him to the successful generation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells).
“I had two types of great teachers in my early days as a scientist,” he said before explaining how the experiments they assigned yielded surprising results and yet he was still praised.
One type was embodied by the likes of Katsuyuki Miura, a professor at Osaka City University, and Tom Innerarity, at the time a senior investigator at the California-based Gladstone Institutes, Yamanaka said.
Yamanaka said both men encouraged him even after the results of his experiments contradicted their hypotheses. He said he has been trying to be a good mentor, like them, but finds it “very difficult.”
The other great teacher “was and is nature itself, who gave me totally unexpected results and who brought me to completely new projects,” Yamanaka said.
The Kyoto University scientist said he initially had no idea how long it would take to identify the key factors needed to reprogram somatic cells into iPS cells, and he often thought it might be “10 years, 20 years, 30 years or longer.”
In the end, it took only six years to achieve his epoch-making 2006 breakthrough, which provided an alternative to destroying human embryos and allowed the moral and ethical hurdles in stem cell technologies to be cleared.
Yamanaka, 50, credited the young researchers in his laboratory, especially Kazutoshi Takahashi, a Kyoto University lecturer, and two others for the rapidity of the discovery.
“Without the devoted work done by these three, we could have never generated iPS cells, at least in my own laboratory . . . I am very, very grateful to these young researchers,” he said.
Yamanaka also said that studies being conducted at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA), which he heads, are expected to help experts examine conditions and screen drugs for motor neuron diseases..