After failure as a surgeon, Yamanaka rises to stem cell glory

October 09, 2012

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Shinya Yamanaka lived his dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, a man who could heal the injuries of athletes and allow them to return to action.

But he was lousy at the job.

His fumbling during operations made him the target of ridicule by his superiors. And even after he left the profession and became a researcher, he had to overcome periods of despondency and frustration that threatened to end his new career.

On Oct. 8, Yamanaka, now the director of Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, was named co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Yamanaka, 50, talks about his first operation as an orthopedic intern fresh out of Kobe University’s School of Medicine almost every time he makes a speech.

He recalls his failure to remove a benign tumor even after an hour, although a good doctor can finish the procedure in 10 minutes or so.

“I am sorry,” he told the patient, his longtime friend Shuichi Hirata, lying on the operating table. Yamanaka’s hands, holding scalpels, were covered with Hirata’s blood.

“What do you mean by ‘I am sorry’?” Hirata, who was only given a local anesthetic, said. “Hang in there.”

Some bad-mouthed seniors called the young doctor “Jamanaka,” a pun on “jama,” a Japanese word for an obstacle.

Yamanaka practiced judo at junior and senior high school and played rugby at university--and suffered broken bones more than 10 times.

His aspirations to become an orthopedist to treat athletes developed from his injury-plagued years.

But he later turned his attention to research after coming across patients with incurable disorders, such as spinal cord injuries and severe rheumatism.

Yamanaka studied pharmacology at Osaka City University’s Graduate School of Medicine and began research on embryonic stem cells at Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. The institute had an atmosphere of freedom, which allowed him to talk frankly with outstanding scholars.

But Yamanaka came up against a wall after he returned to his home country to work at Osaka City University.

He spent more time looking after mice than doing actual research. It was a far cry from the United States, where someone was hired exclusively to take care of the mice.

“Why am I changing mice cages all the time,” he asked himself. From a laboratory window, he could see his daughter on her way from school.

He became disinclined to commute to the laboratory. Once an early riser at 6 a.m., he found that he could not leave his bed until 9 a.m.

His wife, Chika, a dermatologist, became worried. “Why don’t you become a practicing physician,” she suggested.

Instead, Yamanaka applied for an assistant professor post at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in 1999. He said he thought about giving up his career as a researcher if he did not get the job.

In the application process, Yamanaka stated his ambitious goal of clarifying the characteristics of embryonic stem cells, hoping to distinguish himself from the other applicants who all had solid track records.

Kunio Yasuda, former president of the university who sat on the selection committee, recalled that Yamanaka appeared to be someone who accepted challenges while the other applicants mostly chose research topics whose results would become clear in several years.

“To one question, Yamanaka was the only person who not only said he 'can,' but also that he 'will,'” Yasuda said. “He was the best applicant in terms of personality and motivation.”

In a small laboratory at the university, Yamanaka again found the freedom to conduct research, although there was no professor under whom he would study.

It was here that he started his research on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which led to his sharing of the Nobel Prize on Oct. 8.

During his childhood, Yamanaka looked up to his father, Shozaburo, who ran a factory that produced parts for sewing machines in Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture.

His father told him to become a doctor, saying he was not suited for business.

When Yamanaka was an intern, he gave Shozaburo an injection at a hospital. The father appeared happy, but the shot was painful.

Smiling, he said to his son, “You’re not very good at this, are you?”

Shozaburo died before Yamanaka became a researcher.

“My father in heaven must be thinking that I am still a doctor,” Yamanaka said. “I want my research to lead to actual treatments as soon as possible so that I can tell him about it when we meet.”

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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Shinya Yamanaka, right, with Hiroshi Matsumoto, president of Kyoto University, on Oct. 8 after Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shinichi Iizuka)

Shinya Yamanaka, right, with Hiroshi Matsumoto, president of Kyoto University, on Oct. 8 after Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shinichi Iizuka)

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  • Shinya Yamanaka, right, with Hiroshi Matsumoto, president of Kyoto University, on Oct. 8 after Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Shinichi Iizuka)
  • Shinya Yamanaka, right, with his wife Chika during a news conference in Kyoto University on Oct. 9 (Eijiro Morii)

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