Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered acceptable alternative to embryonic stem cells, wins Millennium Technology Award

By Dave Andrusko

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Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD

A friend who knows of my fascination with publicizing alternatives to embryonic stem cells forwarded me a press release headlined “Stem Cell Scientist Shinya Yamanaka Receives Millennium Technology Award.”   Yamanaka, MD, Ph.D., won what was described as the world’s largest and most prominent technology award.

Many of our readers will recall that six years ago Yamanaka, then at Kyoto University, shocked the research world by adding genes to adult skin cells in mice, creating what he called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are almost identical to embryonic stem cells. The idiom was the cells had been sent “back in time.”

There have since been many important changes made to the technique. For example, last year Stanford scientists turned mouse skin cells directly into nerve cells, without any intermediate stem cell step. They began with mouse skin cells in the lab dish, adding three nerve-specific genes using viruses.

“We actively and directly induced one cell type to become a completely different cell type,” said senior author Marius Wernig. “These are fully functional neurons. They can do all the principal things that neurons in the brain do. That includes making connections with and signaling to other nerve cells.”

But it was Yamanaka’s breakthrough that showed the world there was an alternative to lethally extracting stem cells from human embryos.

“I am both honored to receive this prestigious award and humbled to be in the company of such great innovators,” said Yamanaka. “The 21st century holds much promise to fight such devastating conditions as heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease — but as researchers and physicians we must continue to innovate new solutions that will help improve the lives of millions worldwide affected by these and many other diseases.”

The irony is that for all the good news about iPSCs— they may also serve as disease models in the lab, allowing scientists to investigate how some diseases develop– adult stem cells remain the only type of stem cell used successfully to treat human patients.  As Dr. David Prentice has written in this space

“They are the one and only gold standard for clinical treatments with stem cells.  Adult stem cells have many advantages.  They can be isolated from numerous tissues, including bone marrow, muscle, fat, and umbilical cord blood, just to name a few.  And isolating the adult stem cells from tissues of a patient or a healthy donor does not require harming or destroying the donor, giving adult stem cells a decided ethical advantage over embryonic stem cells.  Adult stem cells also have a proven track record for success at saving lives and improving health on a daily basis.  Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells. The diseases and conditions successfully treated by adult stem cells, as shown by published scientific evidence, continue to expand, with published success for numerous cancers, spinal cord injury, heart damage, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, and many others.”

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