SEOUL—A researcher’s “best chance” to win a Nobel Prize lies in “unexpected results” that are often overlooked or ignored, according to Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka. Speaking on 9 June at the World Conference of Science Journalists here in the South Korean capital, the co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was asked how young scientists could endeavor to win science's highest honor. He answered frankly—he doesn’t really know—but he had some suggestions nonetheless.
For him, he continued, the trail of research that led to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells—the epochal advance that earned him the prize—began with his amazement at a photograph of a Drosophila (fruit fly) with a leg emerging from its eye. That photograph impressed on him the potentially immense power of a single gene.
The mission is not papers but treatments.
After earning his medical degree in his native Japan, Yamanaka did a postdoc at Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States. Upon returning to his homeland, he suffered “post-America depression;” he missed the excellent facilities at Gladstone, the likes of which were not readily available in Japan at the time. But then an appointment as a principal investigator at Nara Institute of Science and Technology “cured” the condition. Thanks to crucial contributions from three young lab members, he said, his team succeeded in converting mature skin cells into pluripotent stem cells. That breakthrough is leading to promising new approaches to treating medical conditions as diverse as macular degeneration and Parkinson's disease and speeding up drug development, among other dramatic effects.
Yamanaka’s father encouraged him to become a doctor—but died just after Yamanaka received his medical degree. The loss of his father inspired him to pursue research that would help patients. “The mission is not papers but treatments,” he said in his talk here. At Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application in Japan, which he now heads, the emphasis is always “on the A”—for applications—he added.
Still, basic research is essential for preparing the way for applications that will result in cures, he emphasized. He therefore advised young scientists hoping to make the groundbreaking discoveries of the future to pay very careful attention to unexpected results. There, he suggested, lie the seeds not only of great prizes but also of great discoveries.