Stem cells derived from a mouse's skin won Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize Monday. Now researchers in Japan are seeking to use his pioneering technology for an even greater prize: restoring sight.
Scientists at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe plan to use induced pluripotent stem cells in a trial among patients with macular degeneration, a disease in which the retina becomes damaged, resulting in loss of vision, Yamanaka told reporters in San Francisco.
Companies including Pfizer Inc. are already planning trials of stem cells derived from human embryos. The Japanese study will be the first to use a technology that mimics the power of embryonic cells while avoiding the ethical controversy that accompanies them.
"The work in that area looks very encouraging," said John Gurdon, 79, a professor at the University of Cambridge who shared the Nobel in physiology or medicine with Yamanaka.
Yamanaka and Gurdon shared the $1.2 million award for experiments 50 years apart that showed that mature cells retain in latent form all the DNA they had as immature stem cells, and that they can be returned to that potent state, offering the potential for a new generation of therapies against hard-to-treat diseases such as macular degeneration.
"There are few moments in science that are undisputed as genuine elegant creativity and simplicity," said Alan Trounson, the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco. "Shinya Yamanaka is responsible for one of those. An extraordinary accomplishment by a genuinely modest and brilliant scientist."