A true Japanese hero, Shinya Yamanaka, co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, is all the more admirable because he persevered when the scientific community “didn’t give him the slightest chance of succeeding,” says Alan Coleman, executive director at Singapore Stem Cell Consortium. But after years of searching and sometimes almost giving up in despair, he did succeed…on several levels.
In fact, “He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics,” according to the director of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.
Building on the work of co-winner John B. Gurdon, Shinya Yamanaka found a way to turn fully developed adult cells into immature stem cells, thus eliminating the need for human embryonic stem cells. Since extracting human embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of a human embryo, this type of research had long been embroiled in controversy.
Shinya Yamanaka began looking for an alternative technique after a friend who worked at an infertility clinic showed him an embryo through a microscope.
In a 2007 interview in the New York Times, he said, “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
He has also been reported as once saying, “If embryo stem cell research is the only way to help patients, then I think that is what we should do. At the same time…as a natural feeling, I do want to avoid the usage of human embryos…Human embryos are not like skin cells. They can be babies if transplanted. That is why we are doing what we are doing.”
And what he did has opened the way to possibly repair or replace damaged or diseased organs. His discovery may even lead to treatments for diseases like diabetes, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s.
According to researchers at the University of Notre Dame, “Adult stem cells have proven even more useful than their embryonic counterparts in many ways.” For example, they can become specific types of cells that regenerate only the damaged and missing cells.
“By reprogramming cells from patients with a particular disease, [scientists] can create new tissue with the same genetic background…. That can give new insights into the roots of problems,” write Malcolm Ritter and Cassandra Vinograd.
And as the co-director of the Oxford Stem Cell Institute pointed out, embryonic stem cell research faced the practical problems of the lack of donor eggs and the fact that experiments with embryonic stem cells as treatments were proving unsuccessful. These cells also tend to become tumors when transplanted into the human body.
So, it seems that Yamanaka’s ethical concerns led him to develop a better solution than if he had just accepted the status quo. Though he faced much skepticism, the road less traveled once again made all the difference.
The 2007 New York Times article also stated that the Japanese government put tough restrictions on embryo usage; the use of human embryos wasn’t allowed at Yamanaka’s laboratories in Japan, where he conducted all his research.
Once more, Japan’s government and medical profession demonstrated an ethical sensibility toward life that seems to be waning elsewhere. While in America, ethical issues like this are often relegated to or blamed on the realm of religion, and thus marginalized, in Japan these kinds of ethical standards come from un-politicized, natural common sense.
As Yamanaka said above, it was “as a natural feeling” that he didn’t want to use human embryos. It is natural for human beings to care about human life at all stages of development.
In a short autobiography Yamanaka wrote in 2008, he said the two major issues in stem cell research was (1) an ethical controversy and (2) possible immune rejection after transplantation. Generating patient-specific adult stem cells appears to solve both issues.
“Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path is acceptable for all,” writes Julian Savulescu, director of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. It feels like poetic justice that a Japanese man who challenged the system ended up creating harmony after all.
Japan has reason to be proud of this man who has truly made the world a better place.