Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Yamanaka: 'Rejected, Slow and Clumsy'

This week's announcement of the Nobel Prize for Shinya Yamanaka brought along some interesting tidbits, including who was “snubbed” as well as recollections from the recipient.

Jon Bardin of the Los Angeles Times wrote the “snubbed” piece and quoted Christopher Scott of Stanford and Paul Knoepfler of UC Davis about the selection issues. Bardin's piece mentioned Jamie Thomson and Ian Wilmut as scientists who also could have been considered for the award but were not named. Ultimately, Bardin wrote that the award committee was looking for a “singular, paradigm shifting discovery,” which he concluded was not the case with Thomson or Wilmut.

How Yamanaka arrived at his research was another topic in the news coverage, much of it dry as dust. However, Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News began her story with Yamanaka's travails some 20 years ago. At the time, no one was returning his phone calls as he looked for work, and he was rejected by 50 apparently not-so-farsighted American labs.

But that job search in 1993 came only after Yamanaka decided he was less than successful as an orthopedic surgeon, according to an account in JapanRealTime. “Slow and clumsy” was how Yamanaka described himself.

And so he moved on to research. But again he reported stumbling. In this case, he found a way to reduce “bad cholesterol” but with a tiny complication – liver cancer. That in turn sent him on a journey to learn how cells proliferate and develop, which led him to the work that won the Nobel Prize.

Yamanaka said his original interest in orthopedic medicine was stimulated by his father along with the treatments for injuries young Yamanaka received while playing rugby and learning judo. The JapanRealTime account continued,
“'My father probably still thinks in heaven that I’m a doctor,' he said in the interview(with Asahi Shimbun last April). 'IPS cells are still at a research phase and have not treated a single patient. I hope to link it to actual treatment soon so I will be not embarrassed when I meet my father someday.'”
And then there was, of course, the much-repeated story from the researcher who shared the Nobel with Yamanaka, John Gurdon. He has preserved to this day a report from a high school biology teacher that said the 15-year-old Gurdon's desire to become a scientist was “quite ridiculous.” The teacher, who is unnamed, wrote,
“If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

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