San Jose Mercury News (MCT)
Last year, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University was the first to identify genes in mouse skin cells that allow scientists to "reprogram" the cells to an embryonic state from which they could create some tissue types.
At a press conference Thursday, Yamanaka said he was opening a laboratory at the J. David Gladstone Institutes, a non-profit research facility in Mission Bay and an affiliate of the University of California at San Francisco, to pursue what some have dubbed the "Holy Grail" of regenerative medicine: Creating stem-cell lines derived from adult humans instead of embryos.
"The next step is to apply the technology to humans," said Yamanaka, who also will become a professor of anatomy at UCSF.
Yamanaka's work has spawned new developments, including announcements in June from several teams of scientists that they had reprogrammed mouse skin cells to become "pluripotent," meaning they can turn into any tissue in the body.
The news was greeted worldwide as a crucial development not only for science, but for changing the ethical debate that swirls around using embryos in stem-cell research.
Stem-cell research experts said Yamanaka's arrival will put California front and center in the development of research based on adult human cells being reprogrammed to act like embryonic ones. From a scientific perspective, that could lead to disease- and patient-specific cell lines in the search for new medicines and therapies.
Yamanaka said fierce competition between his team and two in the Boston-area leads him to predict the goal of developing pluripotent human adult stem-cell lines could be reached within one or two years. But some experts are less sanguine, noting that two decades passed between the discovery of mouse embryonic stem cells and human ones.
Yamanaka said he chose to pursue research in California because of his previous association with the Gladstone Institutes and because there would be less government interference in his groundbreaking work. In some cases, he said the Japanese government takes up to one year to approve research protocols.
Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the UCSF Institute for Regeneration Medicine, predicted 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."
Yamanaka, 44, said he will still use embryonic research cells in comparative studies.
Officials from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, created by Proposition 71 in 2004 to oversee the state's publicly financed $3 billion stem-cell research efforts, heralded Yamanaka's move as evidence of the success of their initiative.
"California is becoming a mecca," for leading researchers, said CIRM spokesman Dale Carlson. CIRM said that at least 14 established stem cell investigators have moved to California since 2005, and another half-dozen, like Yamanaka, have part-time positions with medical research facilities. Yamanaka intends to commute from Japan to San Francisco and spend one week a month at his San Francisco lab, he said.
Interim CIRM director Arlene Chiu said she expects vigorous research competition and the availability of public and private resources in the state to continue to draw researchers, using both embryonic and other stem-cell lines.
"I am agnostic about what kind of cell, as long as it works," she said.
Yamanaka said his research likely will not end ethical debate over regenerative medicine. Although his scientific work may not rely on embryonic stem-cell lines, in the future his research on regenerating cells could lead to creation of sperm and oocytes, which are eggs before maturation.
"We would like to help infertile couples," he said, but predicted a new ethics debate would rage.
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