Yamanaka: "slow and clumsy" and other tales of his path to the Nobel

Shinya Yamanaka, courtesy of CIRM science officer Arie Abo, who took the photo at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem cell Research

It’s not often you get to use the words “stem cell researchers” and “giddy” in the same sentence but that’s the only way to describe the mood at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco on Monday after the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine was announced. Shinya Yamanaka, who works at the Gladstone, was one of the recipients of the award and the champagne and cupcakes were flowing like, well, champagne at the news.

The Gladstone Institutes is a mere stroll from CIRM’s offices in San Francisco and I was able to attend the festivities where the stories flowed freely too. R. Sanders Williams, the President of the Gladstone Institutes, talked about how Yamanaka began his career as an orthopedic surgeon in Japan, but quickly came to realize he wasn’t particularly good at it (he describes himself as “slow and clumsy”) so he quit and got a PhD to pursue his true passion, research.

At that point Yamanaka applied to around 50 research facilities for a job, without success. Fortunately the Gladstone decided to take a chance on the young doctor. Unfortunately Yamanaka’s first research project didn’t turn out quite the way he hoped. He was looking for a way to reduce cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart attacks. But the method he chose not only didn’t reduce cholesterol, it also increased the risk of liver cancer (this was in mice I should point out, not people).

Rather than get discouraged by this Yamanaka decided that if he wanted to figure out what went wrong, he would have to know a lot more about how blood stem cells worked. And that set him on a course that eventually led to Stockholm and the Nobel prize.

As to how he heard he won, Yamanaka was his usual humble self when he explained that he was at home trying to repair his dishwasher when his cell phone rang. He picked it up but says he didn’t understand much of what was said other than “Stockholm” and “Nobel prize”. “That was pretty much it” is what Yamanaka says about one of the most important moments in his life.

Yamanaka shares the prize with British researcher John Gurdon for his pioneering work on cell reprogramming in 1962 using frog embryos. Yamanaka jokes that at the time Gurdon was doing his experiments, he was an embryo too. He was born a few months after Gurdon announced his breakthrough.

When asked what he was going to do to celebrate he said he wasn’t sure – though he did think he might have a beer later.


One thought on “Yamanaka: "slow and clumsy" and other tales of his path to the Nobel

  1. Yamanaka iPS is example of failure of peer review. He did not have any data for stability of iPS cells that has been used to differentiate stem cells from cancer cells, and got it published in Cell very quickly, more to the political need of opponents of hESC research. Papers on human embryonic stem cell research being stalled in those top journals for a year or two is quite normal. P53 is DNA damage check. Yamanaka proved himself that DNA integrity is damaged and iPS cell is a hoax, how irresponsible.

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