Stem Cell Person of the Year 2014: Masayo Takahashi (高橋 政代)

Masayo Takahashi

Dr. Masayo Takahashi,  Asahi photo

Congratulations to Masayo Takahashi (高橋 政代), MD, PhD, the winner of the 2014 Stem Cell Person of the Year Award.

Dr. Takahashi received this award including the $2,000 prize for her exceptional achievements in stem cell research in 2014. She was selected as the winner from a stellar group of top 12 finalists this year.

Takahashi leads a team doing high-risk, high reward research that is conducting the first induced pluripotent stem cell (IPSC) clinical study in humans ever. I interviewed Takahashi at the beginning of this year and you can learn more about her research and vision for the future from reading that interviewMonkey stem cell RPEs

The Takahashi team clinical study is intended to examine the safety of a human retinal pigmented epithelial cell (RPE) product made from each patients’ own IPSCs. You can see at right RPEs produced by her team from monkey pluripotent stem cells.

In an astonishing feat of speedy clinical translation, Takahashi’s team transplanted its first macular degeneration patient recently on September 12, only 7 years after human IPSCs were first ever published. The usual timeline for such translation would be 20 years. In that regard, in a recent interview I did with him, Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka had this to say of Takahashi and her work:

I was surprised that after the announcement of human iPSCs in 2007, Dr. Takahashi told me that she would bring iPSC to the bedside within five years. I thought it possible technically speaking, but doubted it could be done so soon, since we needed to improve the technology and get government approval. It took 7 years, which is remarkable considering the work required. Both the accomplishment and the speed at which it was achieved are testaments to Dr. Takahashi’s leadership and her strong team.

Her achievements extend beyond this year to an outstanding long-term track record in vision research including a very impressive track record of highly-cited publications. Takahashi is physician scientist, who is a faculty member and Project Leader at the Laboratory of Retinal Regeneration at the CDB at RIKEN. Some of her nominators for the Stem Cell Person of the Year Award described her as a “transformative” and “courageous” stem cell scientist. Below you can see a TEDx talk from just a few months ago by Takahashi explaining her work.

Takahashi joins previous Stem Cell Person of the Year Award recipients Roman Reed and Elena Cattaneo as outside-the-box thinkers who to take risks to make outstanding new developments in the arena of stem cell research with the goal of helping others.

More about the Stem Cell Person of the Year Award. I fund this prize myself as a way of giving back to the stem cell community and recognizing transformative people who take risks to help others. It is to my knowledge the only annual, international science-related prize personally funded by a professor.

Yamanaka Interview on Clinical Use of Pluripotent Stem Cells

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka.                                           Photo from CiRA, Kyoto University

I invited Nobel Laureate Shinya Yamanaka to do an interview on the future of clinical translation of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC).

He provides some intriguing new insights into the iPSC field and the broader stem cell arena.

PK: The Takahashi Team’s active Clinical Study using iPSCs to make RPEs to treat Macular Degeneration has generated a great deal of excitement. Can you please share your perspectives on the importance of this work and the team involved? 

SY: This is the first study to apply iPSC technology to human care. This is a very important study, because if it succeeds it will show that iPSCs can be safely used in humans and also their potential for cell transplantation treatment. We collaborated with Dr. Masayo Takahashi of RIKEN CDB by evaluating the safety of the iPSCs and iPSC-derived cells that were used for the cell transplantation. She is an excellent researcher, and I am not surprised that her team is the first to have succeeded in this transplant.

PK: Any cutting edge investigational clinical work such as this has some risks. Could you please comment on the potential risks in this iPSC trial? Are there some elements here such as preclinical data, the number of cells used, or the target tissue of the eye that lower risks?

SY: One of the major concerns is whether transplanted cells such as the RPE sheets will cause tumors. In our collaboration with Dr. Masayo Takahashi’s team, we evaluated the safety of iPSCs and iPSC-derived cells by genome and epigenome analysis. While we minimized the risk to a level acceptable for clinical trials, we really cannot confirm how the cells will respond until we actually do experiments with humans, which is why this project is so important. One advantage of treating age-related macular degeneration is that it is easy to detect any abnormalities in the eyes, which is why the disease is a good starting model for iPSC-based treatment.

PK: As the inventor of iPSCs did you imagine 7-8 years ago that a patient in a clinical study in 2014 would already have received an iPSC-based treatment? How was this rapid translation from bench to bedside possible?

SY: I was surprised that after the announcement of human iPSCs in 2007, Dr. Takahashi told me that she would bring iPSC to the bedside within five years. I thought it possible technically speaking, but doubted it could be done so soon, since we needed to improve the technology and get government approval. It took 7 years, which is remarkable considering the work required. Both the accomplishment and the speed at which it was achieved are testaments to Dr. Takahashi’s leadership and her strong team.

The rapid transition is because many bright and passionate people are in the iPSC field. The funding and infrastructure provided by the Japanese government is also a major factor, as these have encouraged excellent scientists to enter the field.

PK: We are also starting to hear more about Dr. Jun Takahashi’s Team’s important work towards using iPSCs to treat Parkinson’s Disease. Can you please tell us more about that?

SY: Prof. Jun Takahashi’s team at CiRA is working on cell therapy for Parkinson’s disease, aiming to transplant iPSC-derived dopaminergic neural progenitor cells into PD patients’ brains. Early results suggest this treatment can be effective, and his team has established the protocol for transplantation. They are now focusing on validating its safety using monkey models. We hope his work will soon reach the operating room within the next few years.

PK: What other clinical applications of iPSC technology are in the works and that might begin clinical studies in the next few years?

SY: There are two major clinical applications of iPSCs, namely regenerative medicine and drug discovery. CiRA has a number of researchers working on either or both. For regenerative medicine, Prof. Koji Eto at CiRA is working on generating platelets via iPSCs, and we expect this will also proceed to clinical research in a few years. Besides work at CiRA, a team at Keio University has a plan to conduct clinical research on patients with acute spinal cord injury in four to five years, while Osaka University and Keio University hope to transplant iPSC-derived cardiac myocytes into patients with heart diseases within a few years. CiRA is collaborating with these teams as well.

Regarding drug discovery, you may have heard recently of CiRA’s Prof. Noriyuki Tsumaki’s paper about statins effects on bone growth, which was published online in Nature last month.

PK: Some in the media are taking about a certain tension between clinical iPSC work in Japan and clinical iPSC work in the US. Do you believe such a tension exists and if so, why? What does it mean for the iPSC field overall?

SY: I am not sure what “tension” means. I understand that both competition and collaboration exist between the US and Japan.

PK: How do you view hESCs today? Are there hESC clinical trials or potential applications that are of particular interest? What is your view of the argument by some that hESC are no longer needed?

SY: Human ESC was a great discovery for regenerative medicine and also instrumental to the discovery of iPSC and the type of medical treatments we are aiming to apply iPSC. At the same time, the ethical issues that hESC possess mean that as iPSC technology improves, hESC will be less needed. Still, iPSC is a new technology, and its safety and efficacy still needs to be confirmed. In addition, there may be some therapies for which hESC are better than iPSC. Thus, I think basic and clinical research of hESC is also important and should be done in parallel with iPSC research.

PK: What excites you most about the stem cell/regenerative medicine field right now today?

SY: I am excited about the possible number of people treated with iPSCs. This field has great potential to provide treatments for currently incurable diseases. Hopefully, within 5 years, we will refer to Dr. Masayo Takahashi’s AMD work as just one of many patient studies using iPSCs.

PK: Where do you see the iPSC field and the broader stem cell field in say 5-10 years?

SY: It is pretty amazing how much it has changed in the past years, so predicting the next 5-10 years is very difficult. I certainly hope we will see more diseases being treated with iPSC and related technologies such as direct reprogramming. I also hope that iPSC will be used more widely and routinely in drug development.

PK: What advice would you give to young scientists today who are excited about a career in stem cells/regenerative medicine?

SY: Through biomedical research, you could help thousands of patients in the future. Stem cells provide unprecedented opportunities in stem cell therapy and drug development. Biology of stem cells itself is extremely interesting. I hope many young scientists will enter to this field.

Blog readers investigate BioGatekeeper, the Yamanaka patent challenger

The readers of this blog never cease to amaze me. What an informed, energetic, bright group.

Within just days they may have collectively shed some light on an intriguing mystery in the stem cell field surrounding this question:

Who is trying, via the name BioGatekeeper, Inc., to nullify Yamanaka’s patent on cellular reprogramming to produce induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells?

This past week the mysterious organization BioGatekeeper, Inc. filed a challenge to the Yamanaka Patent. The basis of the challenge is the assertion that cellular reprogramming was supposedly obvious based on pre-existing art, in this case meaning previous work and intellectual property (IP) on cellular reprogramming by others.

More specifically, BioGatekeeper focused on one other patent as the leverage for its argument to cancel the Yamanaka Patent: the Whitehead Institute Patent on reprogramming (aka The Whitehead Patent). The Whitehead Patent pre-dated Yamanaka’s. Like Yamanaka’s, the Whitehead Patent also focused on reprogramming of cells to pluripotency.

The Whitehead Institute has indicated that it has no involvement in BioGatekeeper.

A logical question then is why the people behind BioGatekeeper, whoever they might be, chose to focus on the Whitehead Patent as the driving force in their argument? That remains unclear at this time.

Who might be behind BioGatekeeper? The most logic candidates would be those who have been involved in cellular reprogramming over the years, particularly in the early days even before iPS cells. Read on on Page 2!

Challenge could cancel Yamanaka iPS cell patent

Yamanaka Patent challengeA new patent dispute has exploded in the stem cell field.

What’s going on?

In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka reported cellular reprogramming to create mouse induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in Cell and the next year multiple groups along with Yamanaka’s reported creating human iPS cells.

It’s no exaggeration to say this was a blockbuster development for the cell and developmental biology fields and Yamanaka later went on to win the Nobel Prize for this discovery.

Another element to the iPS cell story is the intellectual property (IP) related to iPS cells.

There have been numerous IP claims and patents related to cellular reprogramming and iPS cells, but the dominant patent has been U.S. Patent No. 8,058,065 to Yamanaka et al. that was issued on November 15, 2011, which has been commonly known as the “Yamanaka Patent”.

The common perception in the stem cell/regenerative medicine field has been that the cellular reprogramming sector would be mostly dominated at the IP level by the Yamanaka Patent despite there being other patents in this arena.

However, I just learned of a serious challenge to the Yamanaka Patent, which could really turn things upside down. I predicted an iPS cell patent war back in a post this May.

The iPS cell patent challenge was filed by a mysterious entity called BioGatekeeper, Inc.

What is BioGatekeeper? Read on on Page 2!