Abe Funds Stem Cells to Help Cure Japan Wasting Disease

Economic regeneration is the name of the game for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and cellular regeneration is one way to play it.

The government is pushing through bills to fast-track regulatory approval for cell-based products and set new research guidelines. Its also funding a $1.12 billion study of a type of stem cell free from ethical concerns over embryo harvesting that have dogged the science for more than a decade.

Abe aims to cement Japans leadership in a field of research that last year garnered the nations first Nobel Prize for medicine in a quarter of a century. Not only academic bragging rights are at stake: the government wants new industries to wean the worlds third-biggest economy from its dependence on autos and estimates stem cells potential to rejuvenate worn-out body parts or reverse degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers may yield $380 billion in sales by 2050.

Lawmakers will debate legislation as early as this month to make the approval process for cell therapies faster than in the U.S. and U.K. That marks a sea-change from the kind of conservative regime that held back Japanese scientists from research into cells derived from human embryos, said Alan Colman, executive director at Singapore Stem Cell Consortium.

They dont want to repeat that for the innovation Japan was totally responsible for, said Coleman, who helped pioneer cloning techniques that created Dolly the sheep in 1996. They are trying to reinvent themselves and show themselves to be progressive and sensible and not inhibitory.

Investor optimism at the prospects for Japans cell technology can be seen in some stocks. Japan Tissue Engineering Co. (7774), which makes cultured cartilage and skin tissue, has soared more than five-fold this year. ReproCell Inc. (4978), the first company licensed to make iPS cells, is almost three times higher than its initial public offering price in June.

In July, the Health Ministry gave the go-ahead for the worlds first clinical trial on humans with stem cells made using the Nobel Prize-winning technique of Shinya Yamanaka.

In an embryos early stages, stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can become any type of tissue in the body. As the embryo develops, they begin to specialize, or differentiate, into building blocks for the bodys different structures.

Yamanaka showed how these later-stage cells in mice can be reprogrammed into what are termed induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells.

While New York-based Pfizer Inc. (PFE) and Advanced Cell Technology Inc. (ACTC) of Marlborough, Massachusetts, are already conducting trials on humans, these use cells harvested from embryos. As well as sidestepping ethical issues this raises, the Japanese technique reduces risks that immune systems will reject implanted cells because they are taken from patients own bodies.

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Abe Funds Stem Cells to Help Cure Japan Wasting Disease

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