Economic regeneration is the name of the game for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and cellular regeneration is one way to play it. The government is pushing through bills to fast-track regulatory approval for cell-based products and set new research guidelines. It’s also funding a $1.12 billion study of a type of stem cell free from ethical concerns over embryo harvesting that have dogged the science for more than a decade.
Since researchers led by James Thompson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison first isolated human embryonic stem cells in 1998, there has been no publicized success in using them on humans. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, right, holds the medal for Nobel Prize during a meeting with Shinya Yamanaka, professor of Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on Jan. 28, 2013.
Abe aims to cement Japan’s leadership in a field of research that last year garnered the nation’s first Nobel Prize for medicine in a quarter of a century. Not only academic bragging rights are at stake: the government wants new industries to wean the world’s third-biggest economy from its dependence on autos and estimates stem cells’ potential to rejuvenate worn-out body parts or reverse degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s may yield $380 billion in sales by 2050.
Lawmakers will debate legislation as early as this month to make the approval process for cell therapies faster than in the U.S. and U.K. That marks a sea-change from the kind of conservative regime that held back Japanese scientists from research into cells derived from human embryos, said Alan Colman, executive director at Singapore Stem Cell Consortium.
In July, the Health Ministry gave the go-ahead for the world’s first clinical trial on humans with stem cells made using the Nobel Prize-winning technique of Shinya Yamanaka.
In an embryo’s early stages, stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can become any type of tissue in the body. As the embryo develops, they begin to specialize, or differentiate, into building blocks for the body’s different structures.
Yamanaka showed how these later-stage cells in mice can be reprogrammed into what are termed induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.
While New York-based Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Advanced Cell Technology Inc. (ACTC) of Marlborough, Massachusetts, are already conducting trials on humans, these use cells harvested from embryos. As well as sidestepping ethical issues this raises, the Japanese technique reduces risks that immune systems will reject implanted cells because they are taken from patients’ own bodies.