The year 2012 was a bright year for Japan as far as science is concerned. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. John B. Gurdon of Cambridge University for their discovery that mature, specialized cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all cell types — each carrying out a specific task — that compose the body.
Dr. Yamanaka and his team succeeded in 2006 in creating pluripotent stem cells — immature cells that can develop into any type of cell the body needs — by introducing only four genes into mature cells from the skin of a mouse. In 2007, they created similar induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells with human skin cells.
Japan should strive to broaden and strengthen the foundation of research in medicine as well as in other fields of science.
Dr. Yamanaka’s receipt of the Nobel Prize does not mean it will become possible in a short time to use iPS cells for clinical purposes. Although use of the iPS cell technology to cure age-related macular degeneration is appears to be advancing, it may take 10 or more years to confirm its safety and effectiveness and to widely apply it to actual treatment. Although important discoveries are being made in immunity and other areas of medicine, it is important to strengthen research in basic medicine.
The government should consider whether its current policy of distributing research funds is appropriate. The funds should be distributed in a manner that will encourage researchers involved in various research projects, including medicine and other fields of science, and assist them in making important contributions. It would be unwise to concentrate the lion’s share of available funds in a limited number of big projects.
The government also should make efforts to enable more researchers who hold doctorates to get stable employment. If their employment is unstable, the foundation of basic science research in Japan will be undermined.
In July, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland announced that scientists there have found a new subatomic particle that could be the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that could explain the origin of mass.
The apparent discovery of the Higgs boson fills a hole in the Standard Model of particle physics for investigating the ultimate force and matter in our universe. Following the discovery, the design specifications for the 31-km-long, powerful International Linear Collider were completed. The ILC is expected to contribute to broadening human knowledge of the universe. Japan should consider inviting the ILC project by choosing a candidate site.
The catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is still impacting a large number of people. At the very least, the government should not make more difficult the task of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority to write new, post-Fukushima safety standards. It should prod the Diet to quickly endorse the appointment of the authority’s members.