|Yamanaka presents Thomson with the McEwen Award for Innovation. See the two glowing figures on stage, that’s them. Trust us.|
In 1997 after moving back to Japan from the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, Shinya Yamanaka says he was suffering from a rare medical condition called PAD or Post America Depression. He missed San Francisco. His work was going slowly, and some people were urging him to give up working in the lab and return to working with patients. He almost did.
Two things changed his mind. In 1998 Jamie Thomson discovered how to derive human embryonic stem cells, and the following year Yamanaka got his own lab, and his own team. And the rest, as they say is history. Yamanaka went on to show that mature cells can be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells, a new kind of cell he called induced pluripotent. And, of course, last year he received the Nobel prize for that work.
Yamanaka laid out that brief history of his career as part of his President’s Address at the opening of the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) in Boston. This is the 11th year the ISSCR has been around and it’s gone from a relatively small event with limited membership and an uncertain future (the science was still very young back then) to a robust worldwide organization and a conference with almost 4,000 attendees.
Yamanaka then presented Jamie Thomson – the man who helped keep him in science – with the McEwen Award for Innovation. Thomson’s speech was also as much a history lesson as scientific presentation. He talked about how the changing political climate in the 1990’s opened the door for the research that led to the discovery of human embryonic stem cells, but that even then he faced strong challenges in getting funding, and strong opposition from people opposed to embryonic research on religious grounds.
Today, he says the picture is very different. Political opposition to research has mostly faded – although public funding is fading too – and organizations like CIRM (no, really, he said this) have helped drive the research forward in ways that no one had done before. You can read about our history here.
The next three days are going to be filled with talks outlining just how far forward we have come.
More on that tomorrow.