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Rising star achieves breakthrough in regenerative medicine

  • November 25, 2015
  • , TV Tokyo
  • Trending@Japan

Not many scholars can inspire the awe of a Nobel laureate for their scientific insight, especially when they have just begun climbing the professional ladder. But Takanori Takebe of the Yokohama City University School of Medicine has succeeded in doing so. The 28-year-old stem cell biologist stunned the academic community three years ago by successfully carrying out a study that coaxed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) to grow into small human liver buds in mice. Kyoto University Professor Shinya Yamanaka (left in the photo below), who was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of iPS cells, commended the junior researcher by saying on a TV-Tokyo (10/31) program: “His study is absolutely important and unique. Although Takebe is nearly half my age, his future career looks very promising.”

Takebe’s pioneering work impressed Yamanaka and many other academics in the field of regenerative medicine around the world because creating from stem cells “complex organs,” such as livers and kidneys, was viewed as virtually impossible. Takebe challenged this belief by successfully creating “liver tissues” (left), structures that resemble the liver of a six-week-old human embryo, and infusing many thousands of them into a failing liver so as to rescue enough of its function to make a transplant unnecessary. On this approach, the renowned international science journal Nature wrote in 2013: “The results offer a potential path toward developing treatments for the thousands of patients awaiting liver transplants every year.” In devising the new technique to combat incurable organ failure, Takebe reportedly dismissed conventional theories prescribed in textbooks. “He is a truly exceptional scientist who can think independently,” said his mentor, Professor Hideki Taniguchi, who recommended his appointment as an associate professor at age 26, making Takebe one of the youngest faculty members ever in Japan.

The casual attire and relaxed attitude of the young scholar make him an affable character in his 30-member laboratory. But his appearance belies his talent and passion for saving people’s lives. He was inspired to grow a liver in 2010 at the organ-transplantation section at Columbia University where he received training for surgeons. He saw many patients die of liver failure due to a lack of organs for transplantation, which he described as a “sad situation.” Takebe decided that instead of becoming a transplant specialist, he wanted to strive to develop new medical technology to rescue “a large number of people at one time.”

Every now and then, the researcher is willing to leave the “ivory tower” of professional medicine to broaden the scope of fields that his medical skills and knowledge can be applied to. Takebe is currently collaborating with advertising giant Dentsu Corp. to establish a new field called “advertising medicine” to study the role of communication in the next-generation healthcare system. He plans to market “alert pants,” men’s underwear whose color turns from green to yellow depending on the size of the wearer’s hips and waist. “This product allows the user to check if he’s in good shape or suffering from metabolic syndrome. When the pants turn yellow, it means he’s overweight.” explained Takebe, who underscored that by interacting with experts in nonmedical sectors, he is able to dramatically expand his frame of reference through exposure to unfamiliar opinions and views.

Thanks in part to inspiration from outside professionals, Takebe continues to innovate. His most recent accomplishments include the application of his tissue engineering method for developing other organs such as the lungs and pancreas. In addition to private-sector capitalists who are anxious to cash in on the gifted scholar, the Japanese government has already made major investments in his research project to mass-produce organ tissues in the belief that regenerative medicine is a key pillar to reinforce the nation’s economic growth. Takebe’s performance has also prompted a number of prominent foreign institutions, including the University of Cambridge, to offer him research positions, along with R&D funds worth hundreds of millions of yen. Takebe said he is afraid of the “publish or perish” principle practiced abroad because it means “you’re finished unless you’re truly creative.” Despite this, he has agreed to do clinical research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He chose the clinic instead of an educational institution as a venue to hone his professional skills because he “wants to treat children suffering from liver diseases quickly.” Takebe departed for Ohio in late September.

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