Since the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, scientists and doctors alike have been fascinated by the innovations and miracle cures that could come from stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are blank cells harvested from human embryos and have the power to change into whatever cell type is needed. They could potentially be used to grow new organs for transplants, correct defective organs and test new drugs on human tissue without requiring living test subjects.
The less controversial “adult” stem cells are already programmed and can only be used to replace certain types of cells, like in bone marrow transplants.
The research of one woman in STEM, however, has shown that adult stem cells can be genetically altered into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which act the same way as embryonic stem cells.
In 2014, Dr. Masayo Takahashi used iPSCs to halt the progression of age-related macular degeneration.
Masayo Takahashi was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1961. She finished her MD from Kyoto University in 1986, and began working as a medical intern in Ophthalmology at the Kyoto University Hospital.
She worked briefly at the Kansai Electric Company Hospital before returning to Kyoto for her Ph.D., which she finished in 1992. She spent a few years working as an assistant professor at Kyoto.
In 1995, Dr. Takahashi took a post-doctoral position at the Salk Institute in San Diego, working with neural stem cells. While there, she started brainstorming ways the cells could be used for retinal treatments.
When she returned to Kyoto University Hospital in 1997 to take an assistant professorship, she began working on her idea to treat retinal damage using neural stem cells.
Unfortunately, working with neural stem cells is difficult, and Dr. Takahashi realized they wouldn’t be the right choice for retinal treatments. She partnered with an old classmate, Dr. Yoshiki Sasai at RIKEN (Japan’s largest research institute), to examine how embryonic stem cells could be used instead.
Together, they succeeded in turning embryonic stem cells into retinal cells for the first time in the world. In 2006, she became team leader in the Laboratory for Retinal Regeneration at RIKEN. Within the next year, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka demonstrated adult stem cells could be reprogrammed into iPSCs.
This was the turning point in Dr. Takahashi’s career. The two began working together to turn iPSCs into retinal cells, and soon after, Dr. Takahashi performed the first iPSC human transplant in the world.
The patient was a woman in her 70’s with age-related macular degeneration, which usually involves a treatment of injections into the eyes.
Though the woman did not regain her eyesight, the procedure proved that iPSC retinal treatment was safe. In 2017, Dr. Takahashi made history again by showing that iPSCs from a donor can also be safely transplanted into another human. This development will make iPSC treatment more affordable for all.
Today, Dr. Takahashi continues to work at RIKEN to improve retinal treatment through stem cell research. In 2014, she was named one of five “Scientists to Watch in 2014” and one of ten “People Who Mattered in 2014” by Nature magazine.
She’s a member of the Japanese Ophthalmological Society, the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology and the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
In a 2014 interview with Paul Knoepfler, Dr. Takahashi said her advice to young scientists was to “Always seek brand new research fields to make your dreams come true.”
Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.