Honorary doctors 2018 - A revolutionary stem cell researcher

Submitted on Mon, 08/13/2018 - 13:41

Professor Shinya Yamanaka’s ground-breaking work started a new era in medicine

Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences

Professor Shinya Yamanaka
Professor Shinya Yamanaka showed how a mature cell can be converted back into a pluripotent stem cell. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Shinya Yamanaka’s revolutionary discovery was based on a great confidence in the idea. Two decades ago it was still thought that a cell is an embryonic stem cell at the beginning of the development of the human body and that the cells, which, while dividing and forming different tissues, permanently lose their stem cell properties. Reverting back to the highly multifaceted i.e. pluripotent stem cell status in the first cleavage of embryonic development was not considered possible. Yamanaka overturned that general belief and demonstrated how a mature cell can be converted back into a pluripotent stem cell.

Yamanaka’s scientific excellence is based on his research on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). In 2007, Professor of Physiology Katriina Aalto-Setälä from the University of Tampere visited Yamanaka’s laboratory in California at the time the article describing the principles of producing iPS cells was published.

“His work overthrew a dogma of developmental biology. He believed that it was possible,” Aalto-Setälä says.

In 2012, Yamanaka received the Millennium Technology Prize in Finland and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in the same year. In August, Shinya Yamanaka will receive an honorary doctorate at the University of Tampere.

An ethical alternative in cell research

Prior to iPS stem cells, embryonic stem cells were used in research which meant that research halted in many countries due to ethical problems. Stem cell research has completely changed now that stem cells can be produced without egg cells and embryos.

“Ethical problems disappear when a differentiated cell is converted back into a stem cell. Patients have allowed the use of their regular skin or blood cells. In the laboratory, they are converted into iPS cells that almost completely match embryonic stem cells,” Aalto-Setälä describes the method.

Stem cells can be differentiated in the desired direction and cells of various types of tissue can be produced for medical research. For example, it is difficult to take tissue samples from nerves and the heart. It is the safest for the patient to differentiate the cells from the patient’s iPS cell line which contains the patient’s entire genome. Cultured iPS-based cells may be used, for example, as research models to investigate hereditary diseases.

“We have started to understand hereditary diseases in a completely different way; how some mechanism happens or why a cell does not function normally,” Aalto-Setälä explains.

Another application opens up in drug development where iPS cells may be used to screen for drug adverse reactions in human-derived cells before a drug progresses to trials with patients. In addition, cellular research enables the precision treatment of cell dysfunction that cause disease.

Researchers at the University Tampere also use Yamanaka’s iPS technology. Aalto-Setälä, who followed the invention at the place of origin, brought the method with her from the United States. After that, many researchers from Tampere have learned various stem cell techniques at Yamanaka’s laboratories.

Japan spearheads research

Yamanaka also trained as a doctor and he has specialised in orthopaedics. He became interested in stem cell research in the United States. He is currently director of the CiRA Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University in Japan. According to Aalto-Setälä, Japan regards iPS research as a kind of a crown jewel, which is highly appreciated by society and receives plenty of resources.    

It is not yet possible to treat diseases with cell transplants from iPS cell lines. However, Yamanaka’s research community is already preparing for the future by building research facilities and maintaining a special iPS cell bank. Perhaps in the future, individual iPS cell lines may be replaced by suitable cells from a cell bank, which can be used to produce the cells that the patient needs. “However, it will still take time before functional and safe cell therapies are available,” Aalto-Setälä points out.  

Yamanaka was very pleased with the invitation to become an honorary doctor at UTA. He has previously visited his research partners in Tampere where he held a public lecture in 2014.

“He is a wonderful person. Even though he has received all imaginable awards in his field, he has remained as pleasant as always,” Aalto-Setälä says.

Honorary Doctor, Professor Shinya Yamanaka gives a lecture in the Faculty’s celebratory symposium. The title of his talk is New Era of Medicine with iPS Cells. Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences MED: Arvo, Jarmo Visakorpi auditorium, 16 August at 10-12, address: Arvo Ylpön katu 34

Honorary doctors of the Faculty of Medicine and Life Sciences 2018:
Professor of Medicine Virginia Kraus
Professor Emeritus Fritz H. Schröder
Professor, Director of CiRA Research Center Shinya Yamanaka