SF researcher receives prestigious award

September 14, 2009 7:36:35 PM PDT
A Bay Area researcher who revolutionized the science of stem cells is being honored with a major award. It's considered second only to the Nobel Prize. But while the honor is high-profile, the scientist from the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco has the reputation of remaining low-key.

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If making one of the major scientific discoveries of the decade has changed his life, good luck getting Shinya Yamanaka to admit it.

"For the last two years, I've been a bit busier than I used to be," said Dr. Shinya Yamanaka.

The pace might pick up considerably, with word that Yamanaka has been named a recipient of the prestigious Lasker Award, considered second only to the Nobel Prize.

It's for his part in discovering a technique for reprogramming DNA, taking adult cells, and essentially turning back the clock, making them into induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells.

Depak Srivastava is the director of the Gladstone Institute for Cardiovascular Disease, where Dr. Yamanaka conducts parts of his research.

"I think it's clear now, that three years into it, that the discovery of the induced pluripotent stem cells by Dr. Yamanaka has been nothing short of a complete game changer," said Dr. Srivastava.

Yamanaka's discovery came at the height of controversy over embryonic stem cell research, cells cultured from surplus embryos obtained from fertility clinics.

IPS cells, on the other hand, can be created from almost adult cell in the human body, and offered hope of bridging the ethical divide.

"So that's why and how I got interested in reprogramming , making stem cells not from embryos but skin cells," said Dr. Yamanaka.

"He took all the major genes that might be present in embryonic stem cells and said maybe if you put all these together into a skin cell, that might be enough to turn that cell into a stem cell. And magically that did work," said Dr. Srivastava

Researchers still face significant challenges, including cancerous tumors produced by IPS cells in some early studies. But the techniques are improving quickly enough that some predict human trials involving IPS cells within the next five to 10 years.

In the meantime, the international recognition and talk of a possible Nobel, is likely to bolster support for Yamanaka's work. The day we came to visit, a television crew from Japan was following his every move.

But while his discovery could change the course of science, it seems far less likely to change this down to earth researcher.

"I am really, I'm just a basic scientist," said Dr. Yamanaka.

"I will make one prediction, when Shinya wins the Nobel Prize, it will not change him one iota," said Srivastava.

While Yamanaka's colleagues are careful not to get ahead of themselves, 76 prior winners of the Lasker have then gone on to win the Nobel, so it is indeed an important honor.

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