Top takeaways from new Yamanaka (山中伸弥) stem cell interview

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka

Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Photo from CiRA, Kyoto University

Shinya Yamanaka is one of my favorite fellow scientists. His research is creative and rigorous along with having huge clinical implications. At the same time, Dr. Yamanaka sees the big picture and he’s very open about talking about real life as a scientist. I really appreciate both levels. In the past I interviewed him for my blog on the clinical use of IPS cells.

In a new interview with Yamanaka by The Japan Times, he says quite a lot of important things. The field should take note. Below I’ve listed the top bullet points from the interview. Note that he also talks about his father in a touching way and his own efforts to stay healthy with running.

  • Clinical outcomes from IPS cells are going to be broad. “We are now trying to bring iPS cells to patients suffering disease, for example, Parkinson’s disease, Type I diabetes, cancers. I believe that in the next 10 or 20 years, we can come up with many new treatments and therapies by using iPS cells and other related technologies.”
  • Difficulties and challenging times can be a foundation for future success in the biomedical field for scientists. Asked about struggles as a surgeon, Yamanaka said, “The answer was to become a medical scientist. I decided to contribute to medicine and patients in a different way, not as a clinician but as a scientist.” He also talked about challenging times during his training in the US and how things turned around, “in late 1998, human embryonic stem cells were reported for the first time. That was a big hit to me because we could help thousands of patients by using ES cell-derived brain cells or heart cells. That really activated me again. This is one reason how I overcame scientific depression.”
  • The current shift away from autologous use of IPS cells in Japan explained. “…we learned that autologous transplantation is very expensive and also it takes a very long time, at least six months…I think that, for the next five or 10 years, instead of autologous transplantation, utilizing iPS cells from healthy volunteers is the way to go. Such tissues generated from others are called allografts. By utilizing allografts, the cost can be much lower. We can also prepare cells [for transplantation] in advance…While there are many advantages of using allografts, the downside of using iPS cells from non-patients is immune rejection.”
  • Developing the IPS cell bank. “On the basis of a database of all Japanese HLA types, we have calculated that all we need is 140 lines (donors) in order to cover more than 90 percent of all the Japanese population.”
  • Anticipation returning to autologous IPS cell use in 5-10 years.
  • Skepticism on some working toward human immortality. “I don’t think that it will come true. On the other hand, we are trying to expand our “healthy life expectancy.”
  • How to avoid another STAP cell situation. Asked about STAP and misconduct cases, Yamanaka said, “I believe our area, the stem cell field, is very competitive. As many of our research results can lead to medical applications, many people like venture capitalists, venture companies are paying attention to us. That’s maybe one major reason how this kind of problem happens multiple times in our field…after the STAP scandal in 2014, more and more scientists in our field have become very careful. The No. 1 keyword for us is “reproducibility.”