The applause from San Francisco reached Yamanaka all the way in Kyoto, Japan. The now famous stem cell researcher celebrated the news of his Nobel via teleconference with colleagues at the Gladstone Institutes.
Six years ago, Yamanaka discovered a way to turn adult skin cells into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells, which can be coaxed into becoming almost any kind of cell in the human body. The technique provides an alternative to harvesting stem cells from human embryos.
In an exclusive interview with ABC7 in 2009, Yamanaka said that the ethical debate over embryonic stem cells had helped drive his research.
"So that's why and how I got interested in reprogramming," he said.
Colleague Dr. Depak Srivastava say Yamanaka's technique has already led to major advances, including the ability to create beating heart cells in a dish and producing powerful new ways to study disease.
"Here at Gladstone, we study heart diseases, brain diseases, and viral diseases and in each of those areas we've used his discovery and his technology to make major gains," Srivastava said.
The cells are now known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells. Yamanaka believes they will soon be used in practical therapies, including treating eye diseases like macular degeneration.
"In some cases such as macular degeneration, I believe it's almost ready to go," Yamanaka said.
Colleagues describe Yamanaka as humble, bordering on shy. And they say he's unlikely to change despite the international spotlight.
"I am really just a basic researcher," Yamanaka said.
Yamanaka also says much of his research at the Kyoto campus has been focused on the safety of IPS cells, which were linked to cancerous tumors in early studies. He believes the field has advanced enough that human trials for macular degeneration could be possible next year.
Written and produced by Tim Didion