Achieving Safe Regenerative Medicine
Masakazu Fukuda, Section head,
Stem Cell Research Unit
We have established a path toward resolving major challenges in iPS cell cultures.
“Linking iPS cells to the medical field is a hurdle that absolutely must be overcome,” says Masakazu Fukuda of the Life Science Research Laboratories Stem Cell Research Unit. “We will do whatever it takes to achieve that.” He speaks enthusiastically about what he is aiming for.
iPS cells are induced pluripotent stem cells that can differentiate into any type of cell. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University succeeded in generating these cells in 2006. Ever since, researches have progressed at a rapid pace worldwide. Not only have cells been generated, but tissues and organs have as well, and regenerative medicine applications involving transplants to human bodies are starting to become a reality.
However, a major problem lies in clinical applications. Undifferentiated cells sometimes remain in the process of inducing differentiation of iPS cells into transplant cells. These cells could turn into tumors, even if only a few are transplanted into a human body. It is essential to identify undifferentiated cells and completely remove only these cells in the process of generating transplant cells.
Lectins are expected to hold the key. These are sugar chain-binding proteins. Certain types of lectins recognize and bind the sugar chain that appears on the surface of iPS and ES cells. In our collaborative research with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Mr. Fukuda and his team developed a reagent capable of killing undifferentiated cells by attaching killer proteins to these lectins.
These results were highly innovative. Even so, many challenges remain for regenerative medicine applications.
“Even with iPS-derived cells, this sugar chain is not found on completely differentiated cells,” Mr. Fukuda says. “Therefore, if there are remaining tumorigenic undifferentiated cells among the iPS-derived transplant cells, we can attack only the remaining cells. However, there are various methods to induce differentiation depending on the target cells, such as nerve, heart muscle, or liver cells. As a result, the sugar chain that is produced in undifferentiated state disappears at different times. We need to carry out further research to determine the best timing for treatment with this reagent. Confronted with this difficult challenge, we cannot verify every type of differentiation induction, but we are hoping to find the answer through cooperation with users.”
Isolating Exosomes that Hold the Secret of Life
Extracellular vesicles such as exosomes and microvesicles derived from cells have been attracting attention in recent years. We have learned that vesicles contain microRNA and other nucleic acids, as well as proteins. They are thought to play a role in intercellular communications.
Proteins contained in exosomes are believed to be involved in cell differentiation, status maintenance, and malignant transformation. As such, they are considered candidates for biomarkers of various diseases, and researchers are eagerly searching for potential markers.
The purity of samples thus becomes crucial. If impurities are mixed in, they make it difficult to judge whether the marker is the correct one or whether they were contained in the exosome.
Given that, the Life Science Research Laboratories developed a reagent in which protein that specifically captures exosomes is combined with magnetic beads. When a magnet is placed near a solution that was reacted with an exosome sample, the exosomes captured by the beads gather around the magnet. The exosomes' purity is extremely high compared to other isolation methods.
“We always look at things from a researcher's point of view, which is also the user's point of view,” says Ryo Ukekawa of the Technology Development Unit. “Knowing that all our researchers consider purity to be crucial, we have focused on developing a method of capturing exosomes of high purity that is simpler and easier than previous methods.”
Ryo Ukekawa, Research Scientist (Section Head),
Technology Development Unit
We explore challenges and develop solutions from the same point of view as researchers.
Our projections were on the mark, and sales channels for that reagent are now expanding significantly.
Although we have been working on this research topic for a long time, the sudden burst of interest in exosomes put greater pressure on us to speed up our research. While this was happening, one of our technical support staff members told Mr. Ukekawa about a researcher at Osaka University and suggested that a collaboration could be interesting. When he went to meet the researcher, the two hit it off, and the research progressed swiftly.
“Even we are surprised by how quickly time passes in the life science industry. We never even have enough time to spend on a good reagent, so collaborative research and development have proved to be very effective.”
Structural Reforms of Research Laboratories Spur Acceleration
Yoshifusa Sadamura, General Manager
The Life Science Research Laboratories has been producing landmark results in rapid succession. Behind those results lie structural reforms of the research laboratories.
The current general manager, Yoshifusa Sadamura, transferred from the Marketing Department in 2015. One thing he brought with him was a huge list of researchers he had compiled during his many years of work in marketing.
“If you heard the staff muttering, ‘Wouldn't it be great to have so-and-so,' you could suggest an appropriate scientist right away. In an age that demands fast-paced research, something like that makes all the difference,” he says.
We refer to that list when visiting researchers at universities and other institutions, performing collaborative research and producing papers. Our staff members can resolve any doubts and proceed to the next step without interrupting their research, and we are therefore able to provide products that meet society's needs in a timely manner.
“The customer's viewpoint is more important than anything. If you are thinking about providing products that will meet their needs, this is the only way to proceed.”
We also made drastic changes to the layout inside the research laboratories. All staff members used to be given their own booths, but we removed the partitions. Now the whole office can be seen from any seat. If you find out that someone is doing research in a related field, you can quickly change seats to discuss matters with them.
“There are clues hiding even in casual conversations. Good ideas are fostered when people come to share some knowledge and have discussions about it.”
Constantly Looking to the Future
We have succeeded in achieving a certain level of speed, but trends in the life sciences keep accelerating faster. Looking five or ten years ahead, it will be necessary to take further measures. We have to keep an eye on trends in IoT.
Innovation is born from conversations between staff members.
“In three to five years' time, IoT will definitely be completely different from what it is today. Development of reagents will change dramatically, of course, as will the ways drugs are discovered and medical treatment is carried out. How will we make the most of our unique strengths in that context? We've got a lot of ideas,” says General Manager Sadamura.
Artificial intelligence will create development plans and robots will become commonplace in the laboratories of the future. We are already preparing ourselves with a strategy that looks well into the future.