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Stem-cell leap defied Japanese norms

by Rowan Hooper

It’s not surprising that last week Haruko Obokata issued a plea for privacy. On Jan. 29 she published a scientific paper on stem cells that could revolutionize medicine, and overnight the researcher based at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe became a domestic and international star.

The onslaught of media attention went beyond what Obokata had discovered — a way to revert ordinary cells from the body into kansaibō (stem cells), cells with the ability to develop into any cell type. These cells, known as pluripotent stem cells, have long been seen as the key to regenerative medicine, because in theory they can be grown into new organs and tissues.

As a young female scientist, Obokata is something of a rarity in Japan, and many reports included details of her life it’s hard to imagine being discussed if she was a man. Her laboratory is painted pink and yellow, and is decorated with pictures of Moomin characters from children’s books.

She is 30, has a pet turtle — and a boyfriend. Instead of a lab coat, she wears a Japanese apron, a kappogi, originally designed to be worn over a kimono. The Internet shopping service Rakuten Ichiba reported a sharp increase in kappogi sales after the publicity.

But none of this would have been news had Obokata’s work not been so amazing. When we heard of it in the New Scientist office here in London, where I am the news editor, we just couldn’t believe it.

It is certainly possible to make pluripotent stem cells, and I’ve reported here about the work of another Japanese pioneer in that field, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University. But Obokata’s method was so incredible in its simplicity that it almost sounded too good to be true.

Yamanaka had identified four genetic factors that, when transferred into an adult cell using a virus, could cause it to revert to a pluripotent stem cell. This breakthrough work won Yamanaka a share of a Nobel Prize — but one of the inherent problems there is that transferring the four genetic factors can also cause cancer.

Obokata’s work seems to avoid this completely. Rather than using a virus and infecting cells with genetic factors, she simply stresses them. Squeezing cells through narrow tubes or bathing them in an acidic solution turns them pluripotent.

Surely, we thought, it can’t be so easy?

It turns out that the editors at Nature, the British journal where Obokata’s work was published, couldn’t believe it either. When she and her colleagues submitted the work for publication in 2012, it was rejected. She went away, worked on more experiments and resubmitted. This time, after yet more extensive checks, the journal accepted the paper. And the scientific — and general — media deluge began.

Other labs are already trying to replicate the work, and some scientists remain skeptical despite the extra-stringent review process prior to publication.

One of the first things I wondered was whether, if this is the real thing, Obokata and her team have patented the discovery. The secret to a simple method for making pluripotent stem cells could be worth a fortune. At a press conference just before publication, where she was asked about this, Obokata replied: “Yes, we have a patent” — before abruptly stopping. “Actually, I have to say ‘no comment,’ ” she said. Clearly there are plans in motion behind the scenes. The Asahi Shimbun then reported that Obokata’s group had started with patent applications in April 2013.

We can expect big things. One of the reasons this has caused such a sensation is that it comes out of left field. Her work is a great advert for thinking and working differently from the crowd — not a traditional approach for a Japanese scientist. Obokata’s co-author, Yoshiki Sasai, also at the Riken CDB, praised the approach, saying, “She held her own view backed by data.”

Riken CDB is abuzz with important work at the moment. As I reported here in December, another stem-cell biologist there, Masayo Takahashi, is about to conduct the world’s first stem-cell trial on humans. In an interview with New Scientist, she praised Obokata’s discovery, saying, “I feel joyful that we are both working in this wonderful area of science.”

So it’s a fascinating time — and fantastic to see women pioneering this research. However, Japan’s media still has a long way to go regarding its portrayal of women. After all, a piece in the Yomiuri Shimbun soon after Obokata’s paper was published ended with the cheesy observation that “she always strives to be fashionable as well.”

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the news editor of New Scientist magazine.

  • nikita webber

    “she always strives to be fashionable as well.” Just means She’s a regular Japanese Chick, not some crazy Scientist. Just watching the Sochi coverage of japanese Athletes and seem to all get the same indepth treatment and reporters delivering arbitrary facts (male or female).