Yamanaka Wins Lasker Award for Stem Cell Research

By Jeffrey Norris

Shinya Yamanaka

Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, a leading researcher at the UCSF-affiliated J. David Gladstone Institutes and at Kyoto University, has been recognized for a revolutionary achievement in the field of stem cell science with a prestigious Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award.

Yamanaka’s discoveries have the potential to one day lead to new cell-based therapies for a variety of human diseases.

Yamanaka greatly advanced the field of stem cell research by developing a way to turn back the development program in adult skin cells, making them more similar to embryonic stem cells in their potential to give rise to the myriad types of cells that populate tissues throughout the body.

Yamanaka accomplished this — first with mouse cells and later with human cells — by using just four of the dozens of previously identified molecules discovered to have the capability of controlling key genes in embryonic stem cells.

These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, hold great promise for research. Unlike embryonic stem cells, they can be developed using cells from adults who already have a disease. A stable supply of these cells could be used in the lab to learn more about the development of human diseases, using human cells rather than animal cells and animal disease models.

In the development of cell therapies to regenerate tissue, induced pluripotent stem cells can be derived from the patient’s own tissue, which should eliminate the risk of transplant rejection.

Galvanized Research

“It’s likely that every stem cell laboratory in the world right now is working on some aspect of the technology that Dr. Yamanaka initially described,” says Deepak Srivastava, MD, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, a UCSF professor of pediatrics, biochemistry and biophysics, and the Wilma and Adeline Pirag Distinguished Professor in Pediatric Developmental Cardiology.

“It is unusual to recognize such a relatively recent accomplishment with such a prestigious award, but I think it’s very well deserved and reflects the potential impact of the discovery,” says Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF. “It’s an advance that has really captured the imagination of the entire field and galvanized laboratories around the world.”

According to Kriegstein, “This new approach opens the door for the development of patient-specific cell lines that can be used to unravel disease mechanisms, to discover new targets for disease treatment, and ultimately to provide patient-tailored cell therapies.”

In announcing the award, shared by Yamanaka and John Gurdon of Cambridge University, the Lasker Foundation cited contributions of the two scientists to the understanding of “nuclear reprogramming.”

Development had always been viewed as a one-way street. As organisms develop, cells become increasingly specialized. That’s why it was a surprise when Gurdon in the 1950s showed that transferring into an egg the nucleus of an adult cell – complete with DNA and the encoded genetic program – could generate embryonic cells. He showed that the genetic program of an adult cell could be “reset” to its embryonic state. This line of inquiry eventually led to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1997.

Just a few years ago Yamanaka made his own seminal discovery. Coming after a time when a few major stem cell findings could not be replicated, the stem cell research community was initially cautious, but within months had embraced the new techniques Yamanaka developed.

The significance of Yamanaka’s work extends beyond stem cell science, according to Srivastava. “I think it has changed the way many scientists – even outside the stem cell field – view the fundamental aspects of cellular biology,” he says. “We now know that cells can move back and forth between different states—from being a skin cell, to a heart cell to a stem cell—and that’s different from how we thought the body worked.”

“The technology is for patients,” Yamanaka says, “and the more scientists build on this technology, the faster we will impact those who live with chronic or life-threatening disease.”

Yamanaka spent two years as an orthopedic surgeon before becoming interested in a basic research career. In 1993 he first joined the Gladstone Institutes as a postdoctoral fellow. Yamanaka was recently appointed professor in the Department of Anatomy at UCSF, and he is the L.K. Whittier Investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, where he maintains a laboratory. He also maintains a laboratory at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA).

Yamanaka has previously received other major awards. Along with Peter Walter, PhD, professor and chair of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, Yamanaka was one of just five recipients of the prestigious Gairdner International Award for 2009, which recognizes researchers who have made significant achievements in medical sciences. As with the Lasker Awards, many recipients of Gairdner Awards have gone on to win a Nobel Prize.

The Lasker Foundation and the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease first announced Yamanaka’s most recent Award on Monday.

Related Links:

Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Awards—2009

Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD

UCSF’s Blackburn Wins Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research
UCSF Today, September 18, 2006