Scientist Yamanaka Receives March of Dimes Developmental Biology Prize

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Originally trained as an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka is grateful to the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco for allowing him to follow his dreams to become a research scientist following his graduation from Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan.

“After receiving a Ph.D., I luckily got a postdoctoral position in Dr. Thomas Innerarity’s laboratory. I moved to San Francisco with my wife and our two daughters. The new environment was stimulating for me. Discussions with my colleagues helped me develop the capability to build up my career as a scientist,” Yamanaka said via e-mail from Japan.

Yamanaka, 47, whose work has focused on reprogramming adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells, was chosen in January to receive the 2010 March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology for his pioneering work that will aid research into the prevention of birth defects. The prize is a $250,000 cash award and a silver medal.

The March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology has been awarded annually since 1996 to investigators whose research has profoundly advanced the science that underlies the understanding of birth defects.

Yamanaka developed iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, similar to embryonic stem cells, which can develop into various organs and tissues.

“It is a great honor for me to receive such a prestigious award like the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. Receiving the award is surely encouraging for me and my colleagues to work harder to advance iPS cell research to contribute to the development of new cures for various diseases, including those affecting babies,” said Yamanaka, who is also a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and Kyoto University in Japan.

Yamanaka will receive his award at a ceremony on May 3 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

“He is a very humble scientist who has a lot of courage and has taken bold steps in thinking out of the box,” said Dr. Deepak Srivastava, the director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease. “His work has fundamentally altered the way stem cell researchers view the field. He has definitely been a game-changer in the stem cell field.”

Gladstone President Dr. Robert W. Mahley added, “Shinya has had three key attributes that have made him successful as a scientist. He has an innate curiosity, he has always had a vision for big things, and he has an indefatigable work ethic. At Gladstone, those characteristics paralleled what we try to find in all of our young scientists. And, then we help them to apply tools and techniques.”

Yamanaka’s work has focused on reprogramming human skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells that have the ability to develop into any kind of cell or blood, tissue or bone.

Now known as the “Yamanaka method,” it eliminates the complex process of obtaining stem cells from human embryos, which results in the destruction of the embryo.

Yamanaka said he hopes that the pluripotent cells will have a significant impact on the ability to understand diseases, including birth defects.

“I think that the iPS cells will become an effective research tool for researchers to use to understand the causes and progression of various diseases, including those related to birth defects, because the technology is likely to make it possible to study how the condition and function of cells from patients change in a particular disease state,” he said.

Mahley said he believes that Yamanaka’s findings in stem cell research will have a wide-ranging impact.

“Shinya’s accomplishment not only opened up the entire field of stem cell research, but also changed the way we approach cell biology,” Mahley said. “The simplicity of his process enabled scientists around the world to work on this important technology. And, it demonstrated that the clock in cellular development could be turned back and restarted. That has impacted virtually every area of disease research, aging, etc. I believe we have not yet seen the impact this has made beyond the field of stem cell research,” he added.

Yamanaka said that his interest in the field of stem cell research developed when he was working at the Gladstone Institute, where he cloned mice.

“When I was working as a post-doc at the Gladstone Institute, embryonic stem cells were research material for me to make knockout mice, which I used in many experiments,” Yamanaka said.

Michael Katz, M.D., senor vice president for Research and Global Programs at the March of Dimes, said that Yamanaka has transformed the field of stem cell research.

“The significance of Dr. Yamanaka’s finding is that the pluripotent stem cells can be used to correct abnormalities. And it avoids the ethical objections,” Katz said.

Yamanaka dismisses the opinions of some that he could someday be a contender for the Nobel Prize.

“I do not see myself a strong contender for the Nobel Prize, as so many scientists have contributed to cell reprogramming research before me, and iPS cell research is still in its infancy,” he said.

Yamanaka, who works one week a month at the Gladstone Institute, returned to Japan in 1996 where he worked as an assistant professor at the Osaka City University School of Medicine. In 2004, he began a professorship at Kyoto University.

Mahley said that Yamanaka has found success in the midst of some difficult odds.

“If you think of how Shinya made the transition from surgeon to research scientist — against very strong odds — it was all about his drive and his commitment to learn,” Mahley said. “Further, his ability to think independently enabled him to take on this difficult project [of reprogramming]. It was extremely risky, something many others would not take on, yet he succeeded. Finally, as a scientist and a person, Shinya is humble and generous.”

Yamanaka said that his career as a scientist has been highly fulfilling and that the unexpected results can often yield new discoveries.

“Science is full of surprises. You make a hypothesis and conduct an experiment to verify it. But the research results often demonstrate what you did not expect. Unexpected results make you disappointed, but sometimes lead you to new discoveries that can contribute to the development of science and to the improvement of people’s everyday life,” he said.

The March of Dimes is a leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. The March of Dimes’ premier event, March for Babies, is scheduled for April 24 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. For information, visit www.marchofdimes.com/ca or www.nacersano.org.

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