Japan Aiming For a Commanding Position on New Stem Cells

Masayo Takahashi, a global stem cell pioneer from Japan, at ISSCR.
Masayo Takahashi, a global stem cell pioneer from Japan, at ISSCR.

Stem cell technology is poised to wow the world with biomedical advances in the coming decades and Japan wants to lead the way. They want to forge ahead particularly with applications that focus on a relatively new kind of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells.

Japanese researcher, Shinya Yamanaka, first reported production of iPS cells in 2006 in mice and in 2007 in humans.

Japan has raced ahead of other countries and they appear to have the intellectual property rights and drive to do so. And Japan wants to accelerate further.

According to a quote attributed to Dr. Masayo Takahashi, the leader of a Japanese team pursuing an iPS cell-based therapy for the leading cause of blindness, macular degeneration, Japan is aiming to be in a commanding position.

 “I want us, Japan, to dominate the world in the area of therapies using iPS cells,” Masayo Takahashi, who is leading the study at government-funded research center Riken, said in an interview. “It feels like the government is opening one door after another to help.”

This is a very striking quote so I emailed Dr. Takahashi a few days ago asking her to confirm it and talk a little more about what she meant. If I get a response I will let you know. She may have been misquoted on that “dominate” word?

While I worry that researchers in Japan may be moving a bit too fast to human studies, at the same time I have to admire their dedication and commitment to translating iPS cells into clinically relevant medicines.

In addition, the Japanese government has definitely stepped up to the plate, committing more than $1 billion USD specifically to iPS cell research.

For reference, the entire NIH budget in the US to study all biomedical applications is just under $30 billion and sadly is shrinking, particularly compared to inflation….and there’s no way that anywhere close to $1 billion of that NIH funding is for iPS cells, not even over a period of many years. I’m hoping to get some hard numbers on NIH funding of iPS cells in the coming months, but I suspect it is more like one hundred million. I hope I am wrong and it is much higher.

Another US example is that the total CIRM (California stem cell agency) budget for 10 years is $3 billion for all kinds of stem cell research. CIRM has funded a sizable amount of iPS cell research so the state of California is a serious competitor to Japan on iPS cells. Other entities in the US such as the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and some companies such as Cellular Dynamics are important players too.

Still Japan is remarkably committed to being the iPS cell leader and iPS cells are understandably a source of pride for Japan given Yamanaka’s achievements including the Nobel Prize.

I can only imagine where the currently 7-year old iPS cell field will be in another 7 years.

It’s tricky when it comes to getting iPS cell-based therapies to patients. The sweet spot–not too slow or too fast–for the speed of iPS cell clinical translation is not entirely clear today.

I hope Japan and other countries including the US as well as the research teams doing the translational work find that sweet spot.

3 thoughts on “Japan Aiming For a Commanding Position on New Stem Cells”

  1. Pingback: News and Blog Round up 07/09/13 | Stu's Stem Cell Blog

  2. Thanks for this writing, Paul. I think it is really exciting what is going on with IPSs in Japan. Personally, I would be happy reading more from you on the mechanism of ISPs, hESC derived MSCs and differentiated BM derived MSCs (MSC-NP). All three stem cell types are very much studied and human studies, clinical trials are under way, so preliminary results should come out soon. What are the potential advantages and disadvantages of these stem cells? What could be the major safety issues with them, etc.? As for BM derived MSCs, we already know that they are pretty safe; however, their efficacy seems limited. Could these new stem cell types ameliorate them in the near future as clinical trials go ahead?

  3. There is really exciting science going on in Japan. I would be very much like to see a comparison of iPS cells and SCNT into embryonic derived stem cells. I bet there are some differences. Because we are able to transmit to our children – through sexual reproduction – an unspoiled genome with perfectly good telomeres, it seems to reason that SCNT into a stem cell line would be a more ideal way of generating patient specific stem cells. It would certainly avoid having to overexpress and then worry about all of those oncogenes, c-myc in particular. Something really exciting in Japan which doesn’t get as much press is blastocyst complementation. This research represents an emergent paradigm shift in the stem cell field. As the philosophy of Kuhn dictates, scientists with clout will hunker down in the current paradigm and fade away from relevance. My hope is that scientists capable of adaptation are left to do work in the US, and not only in Japan.

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