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Japan Prize winners Yutaka Takahasi, Alain Fischer, and Theodore Friedmann.

Japan Prize winners Yutaka Takahasi, Alain Fischer, and Theodore Friedmann.

The Japan Prize Foundation

Work focusing on the health of humans and of rivers nets 2015 Japan Prizes

TOKYO—The winners of this year's Japan Prizes are grateful for the awards, but also hope the recognition will further their scientific objectives in improving treatments for genetic disorders and reducing the toll from flood disasters.  

Theodore Friedmann of the University of California, San Diego, and Alain Fischer of the Imagine Institute in Paris and of the Collège de France will share the prize for "Medical Science and Medicinal Science." Their winning work involved gene therapy, an experimental technique in which genes are inserted into patients to replace mutated genes that are causing disease. Friedmann is credited with originating the concept in the 1970s and furthering basic research. Fischer, in 2000, reported demonstrating the clinical efficacy of gene therapy for the first time, using blood stem cells to treat a fatal genetic disorder called X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency. "Gene therapy has become a reality in recent years with many cases of successful treatments; the field is flourishing," said Hiroshi Komiyama, a chemical engineer and former president of the University of Tokyo who chaired the selection committee.

Yutaka Takahasi, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Tokyo, convinced engineers and policymakers to look holistically at entire river basins and the hydrological cycle when attempting to control flooding, rather than simply building more dams and higher embankments, Komiyama explained. Takahasi is being recognized in the field of "Resources, Energy and Social Infrastructure."

All three winners, appearing here today, thanked Japan Prize officials and the selection committees. But they all also expressed hope that the awards will highlight ongoing challenges in their respective fields. For gene therapy, "the path from concept to reality has not been straightforward and easy," Friedmann said.

The setbacks have included poor results from initial trials in the 1990s. And in 1999, a patient enrolled in a gene therapy trial in the United States died. It took several years for researchers in the field to address resulting safety and ethical questions. Fischer also suspended his gene therapy trials to solve safety issues. Research picked up again in the later 2000s, particularly with the use of new techniques for safely introducing the genes into the human body.

At today's press conference, both Friedmann and Fischer expressed confidence that their approach is on the cusp of mainstream clinical use. Recent advances "give us reasonable hope that gene therapy will enter the armamentarium" to treat genetic blood disorders, some cancers, and inherited diseases, Fischer said, adding: "We might be very close to approval by regulatory authorities." He cautioned that the field still needs to prove itself. "The number of patients treated is limited and the follow-up short," he said. Friedmann said he hopes the Japan Prize will "lead to greater awareness of the field.”

As for his specialty, Takahasi said that although many lessons have been learned in watershed management, new challenges are emerging as global warming leads to changing rainfall patterns, more powerful typhoons, and other weather anomalies. He said he hopes Japan Prize recognition will get Japan and the world "to recognize the serious threat and come to grips with the new challenges."

The laureates will return to Tokyo in April for the ceremony. at which they will receive a certificate of recognition and a commemorative gold medal. Each prize category carries a cash award of approximately $420,000.

Japan Prize topics are selected annually from within a range of disciplines gathered under two broad areas: physics, chemistry, and engineering; and life science, agriculture, and medicine. The categories for the 2016 prizes are “Materials and Production” and “Biological Production and Biological Environment.” The prize is intended to recognize individuals for scientific achievements that also promote peace and prosperity.