The 4th Edition of the Foundation BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in Biomedicine goes to Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka for “showing that it is possible to reprogram differentiated cells back into a state that is characteristic of pluripotent cells“, according to the communication prepared by the Jury of these Awards, in the press release published today, February 4, 2001, at the Foundation BBVA web site.
Shinya Yamanaka, Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University (Japan), and professor in the Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences at the same institution, demonstrated in 2006, in a seminal paper published in the scientific journal Cell, that only four genes were required to induce the conversion of fibroblast into cells with properties of pluripotent stem cells, thus coining the concept of the “induced pluripotent stem cells“, or iPS cells. This is one of the most outstanding, innovative and original experiments ever reported in Biology, that triggered a true revolution in Cell and Developmental Biology, where many laboratories around the world were able to quickly reproduce and, in some cases, improve the initial protocol devised by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan. The discovery of the iPS cells, showing that the idea of reversing the fate of already specialized cells was indeed possible, is a breakthrough comparable to the first successful nuclear transfer and reprogramming experiment achieved in mammals, with the cloning of Dolly, the sheep, born in 1996 and reported one year later, in a milestone paper by Ian Wilmut and co-workers, published in Nature. Shinya Yamanaka explained that “From their work I learned that we should be able to convert somatic cells back into their embryonic state. That is what inspired me to start my project”.
The iPS cells, first envisaged by Yamanaka, have an immense potential for regenerative medicine and studies of disease and development. Most recent experiments, published earlier this week, show that the genomic methylation status of iPS cells is surprisingly different from that of pluripotent embryo stem (ES) cells (Lister et al. Nature 2011, February 2), and that this aberrant methylation pattern is maintained in those differentiated cell types derived from the iPS cells. Further experiments would be required to assess the relevance of these new findings regarding the potential applications in Biomedicine of iPS cells. However, the central contribution of Shinya Yamanaka and the beauty and simplicity of his pioneer experiments will remain for ever.
The Foundation BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge Awards are associated with a 400.000 € (~545,000 USD) Prize. The 2010 Prize Jury in Biomedicine was chaired by Werner Arber, (Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1978, Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland) and included, as remaining members: Robin Lovell-Badge (MRC National Institute for Medical Research, UK); Dario Alessi (College of Life Sciences, Dundee University, UK); Mariano Barbacid (Spanish National Cancer Research Center-CNIO); José Baselga (Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, USA); Angelika Schnieke, (Department of Animal Science, Technical University of Munich, Germany); and Bruce Whitelaw (The Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, UK). Both Robin Lovell-Badge and Bruce Whitelaw are members of the ISTT.