2010 Balzan Prize for Stem Cells: Biology and Potential Applications
These cells, called induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPS), were first generated by introducing four genes (Oct4, Sox2, c-Myc, klf4) into mouse fibroblast cells in vitro, with the assistance of retroviral vectors. In an article that came out in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka showed how these genes, encoding transcription factors, can reprogram the genome of these cells and thus make them revert to an embryonic state where they are capable of generating all types of cells present in the same organism. Shortly thereafter, Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues demonstrated in a 2007 paper, that iPS cells can be obtained from human fibroblasts.
These results caused a veritable tidal wave of research on stem cells, and major therapeutic applications are expected to be developed from these efforts. The remarkable, yet unexpected discovery of iPS cell technology opens up hitherto undreamed of prospects for regenerative medicine, the discovery of new drugs and new tools for the study of diseases.
The ethical problems raised by embryonic stem cells – stem cells derived from human embryos – have thus been circumvented, and one might now foresee that customised cells specific to each patient and not subject to immunological rejection may be made available in clinics in the future.Since his fundamental discovery of 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his group have shown that different types of cells other than fibroblasts can be reprogrammed.
The work accomplished since then tends to reduce or even eliminate the risk of tumorigenicity in iPS cells, demonstrating that cellular reprogramming can be obtained in the absence of retroviral vectors and the oncogene c-Myc.
Shinya Yamanaka’s experimental results, which have the virtue of being easily reproduced, have made it possible to take a giant step in research on stem cells and regenerative medicine. They are also of great importance in the field of fundamental research and the understanding of mechanisms of cellular differentiation and its malfunctioning, which can lead to cancer and other diseases.