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Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

Nobel prize winner Yamanaka a stem cell pioneer

AFP-Jiji, Kyodo

Shinya Yamanaka, who on Monday shared the 2012 Nobel in medicine, could have made bits of sewing machines for a living. Instead, his tinkering with the building blocks of life has made him a Nobel prize winner.

Born in 1962 when Japan was beginning a decades-long manufacturing boom, Yamanaka was the only son of a factory owner who produced parts for sewing machines.

But even as the country's industries exploded in the 1970s, his father told him he should not follow the traditional Japanese path and take over the family business, but become a doctor.

As a youth, Yamanaka practiced judo and sustained broken bones several times. That raised his interest in plastic surgery, according to people who have long known him.

Yamanaka started his career in medicine as a plastic surgeon in 1987 after graduating from Kobe University.

When he began treating serious rheumatic patients, however, Yamanaka was shocked to see how their joints were damaged without any promising cure. That experience changed his career course and led him to research human cells, Yamanaka once said.

In 2006, Yamanaka succeeded in generating "induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells" from skin tissue.

Writing in the journal Nature in 2010, Yamanaka explained his work.

"The stable states of differentiated cells are now known to be controlled by dynamic mechanisms that can easily be perturbed.

"An adult cell can therefore be reprogrammed, altering its pattern of gene expression, and hence its fate, to that typical of another cell type."

His work was hailed as a breakthrough because it demonstrated that it was possible to sidestep the sticky ethical issue of embryonic stem cell research.

Despite its huge promise, many balked at the idea of using — destroying — an embryo to get the important stem cells.

It was less of a problem in animal experiments but became a huge hurdle when moving to work on human cells. Religious conservatives, among others, objected and stem cell research was stymied.

"If embryo stem cell research is the only way to help patients, then I think that is what we should do," Yamanaka once said.

"At the same time . . . as a natural feeling, I do want to avoid the usage of human embryos. . . . Human embryos are not like skin cells, they can be babies if transplanted. That is why we are doing what we are doing" with iPS cells.

Yamanaka is acutely aware of how controversial his science can be and says it needs to be strictly regulated.

"We should limit the application of technology to treatment or what can make patients happier," he has said. "We may be able to generate new life (with this technique), so we are presented with another ethical issue."

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