Nov 2013

A small clinical trial says big things about Japan

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Japan is moving forward with its plans to fast-track the use of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to treat diseases — and revitalize its economy.

According to the Japan Times, the country last week officially passed a law “to promote safe and swift treatment using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and other stem cells.” The legislation had previously received lower-house parliamentary approval.

As touched upon in an earlier post, Japanese scientists are now conducting world’s first human tests using iPS cells to treat age-related macular degeneration – the leading cause of vision loss in people over 50.

It’s no surprise they are first. Japan’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka demonstrated how to create human iPs cells six years ago, inducing  adult skin cells to become pluripotent (capable of differentiating into any cell the body needs). These cells function much like human embryonic stem cells but come without any controversy over destroying embryos to create them. The downside to iPS cells is a safety concern that the reprogrammed cells could potentially cause tumours to form. Researchers in Canada and around the world have been working on solutions to that.

Dr. Yamanaka  won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his efforts. Throwing their support behind his work, Japan’s government recently announced it would invest more than $1 billion over the next 10 years in researching and developing iPS cells.

There is much more than national pride at stake, however.  According to Bloomberg News, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees cellular regeneration as a key element of economic regeneration. His government, the report says, “estimates that 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.”

The macular degeneration trial involves just six patients using iPS cells generated from their own skin. It is a  tiny study by any measure. But it represents a big step in the country’s efforts to develop a stake in that potential mega-billion-dollar market.

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