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Respected Japanese Researcher Brings More Stem Cell Science to California

By Mary Anne Ostrom, Mercury News, August 17, 2007

Marking a significant milestone in the state of California's bid to become the international destination of choice for the world's leading regenerative medicine experts, a new lab will soon be opening in San Francisco headed by a Japanese pioneer in stem-cell research.

Mouse skin cells were reprogrammed last year, and changed back into an embryonic state thanks to the identification of specific genes by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University. The reprogrammed skin cells could be used to form different types of tissues.

In order to pursue what some have called the "Holy Grail" of regenerative medicine, the laboratory will be opened at the University of California-San Francisco affiliated non-profit research facility named the J. David Gladstone Institute in Mission Bay said Yamanaka at a press conference on Thursday. The goal is to create new treatments and replacement tissues for disease that could be personalized without using controversial embryonic stem cells. This would be accomplished by using a patient's own cells that could be reprogrammed into stem cells.

"The next step is to apply the technology to humans," said Yamanaka, who also will become a professor of anatomy at UCSF.

Meaning that they can turn into any tissue in the body, the term "pluripotent" has been used in recent months when describing the reprogrammed mouse cells that several teams of scientists recently developed. The catalyst for these further breakthroughs was Yamanaka's work.

For changing the ethical debate over using embryos in stem-cell research as well as being called a crucial development for science, the news was met with applause worldwide.

With research based on adult human cells being reprogrammed to have the same qualities as embryonic cells, minus the controversy, experts said that Yamanaka's arrival will put California front and center in the development of this type of research. Patient and disease-specific cell lines could be developed as a result of this research. New therapies and medicines will more than likely be developed.

Within one to two years, the goal of developing pluripotent human adult stem-cell lines could be reached said Yamanaka. The fast paced expectations arise from the competition between two Boston-area teams and his own. But considering that the time between the discovery of mouse embryonic stem cells and human embryonic stem cell was 2 decades, some experts are less optimistic of the rapid time frame.

Due to less government interference in his groundbreaking work and his previous association with the Gladstone Institutes Yamanaka decided on California as his new home. to approve research protocols, it can take up to one year in some cases for the Japanese government to approve of work.

Yamanaka's work and that of others in the key new area of stem-cell research will help "unravel the mechanics of the disease itself," believes Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the UCSF Institute for Regeneration Medicine.

Yamanaka's move was cited as evidence that the state's initiatives were successful by officials from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. They created Proposition 71 in 2004 to oversee the state's publicly financed $3 billion stem-cell research efforts.

"California is becoming a mecca" for leading researchers, said CIRM spokesman Dale Carlson.

A half-dozen, like Yamanaka, have part-time positions with medical research facilities in the state, and at least another 14 established stem-cell investigators have moved to California since 2005 stated CIRM.

The availability of public and private resources in the state should continue to draw researchers said interim CIRM director Arlene Chiu. She expects the significant research competition to add to the appeal.

"I am agnostic about what kind of cell, as long as it works," she said.

The debate over regenerative medicine will likely not end because of his work said Yamanaka. Even though his work does not rely on embryonic stem cells he says his desire to develop a solution for infertile couples could still raise some questions.

"We would like to help infertile couples," he said, but predicted a new ethics debate would rage.


 

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