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2016: Yoshinori Ohsumi, Ph.D.

Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi was born in Fukuoka in 1945. He received his bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo in 1967, and completed courses and training in the Ph.D. program at the Graduate School of Science. Although he did not officially obtain a Ph.D. degree, he was given an opportunity to pursue research at Rockefeller University in the United States. He later obtained a position as a researcher at the University of Tokyo. In 1988, he became an assistant professor and was given his own laboratory for the first time, where he chose to pioneer the study of the mechanism of enzyme activity in yeast vacuoles. He was the first to discover autophagy while observing these vacuoles under the microscope. His discovery drew attention to this previously unknown phenomenon and initiated a new area of research. In 2013, Dr. Ohsumi was recognized as one of the Thomson Reuters Citation Laureates because his publications on molecular biology and physiology research have been cited by countless researchers. He was also awarded several academic prizes, such as the Fujiwara Award (2005), the Asahi Prize (2008), the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (2012), and the Gairdner Foundation International Award (2015). He is currently an Honorary Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

2015: Satoshi Omura, Ph.D.

Born in Yamanashi in 1935, Dr. Satoshi Omura received his bachelor degree from Yamanashi University in 1958, then began work as a science teacher for a part-time course of Tokyo Metropolitan Sumida Technical High School. While working as a teacher, he also went on to graduate studies at Tokyo University of Science in 1960 and received his M.S. in 1963. After working as an assistant professor at Kitasato University School of Pharmacy and visiting professor at Wesleyan University, he served as a professor at Kitasato University, Director at the Kitasato Institute and in other various potisions. Currently he is professor emeritus at Kitasato University and Max Tishler Professor of Chemistry at Wesleyan University.
Dr. Omura’s research career has been devoted to seeking out valuable pharmaceuticals originally occurring in microorganisms. During his 45-year career, he has discovered more than 450 organic compounds, 26 of which have been developed to new drugs, saving tremendous numbers of people all over the world.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015 was awarded jointly to Dr. Omura and Dr. William C. Campbell, currently a research fellow emeritus at Drew University, for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites - Avermectin.
In 1974, Dr. Omura sent samples of some new species of bacteria he found in Japan to Merck Sharp & Dohme Research laboratories, where Dr. Campbell had worked. Dr. Campbell showed that a component from one of the cultures reduces parasitic worm in mouse models and was remarkably efficient against parasites in animals. This component was named Avermectin.
Avermectin was chemically modified to Ivermectin. It is efficient against parasitic worms which cause River Blindness (Onchocerciasis) and Lymphatic Filariasis. River Blindness ultimately leads to blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis leads to the heavy swelling called elephantiasis tropica.
Now, the Kitasato Institute foregoes the royalties which would have been payable by MSD, which donates ivermectin free of charge to help eliminate river blindness. Consequently, the drug has saved more than one billion people through activities led by WHO. Ivermectine is also used for domestic and farm animals to exterminate their parasitic worms and protect them from parasitic infectious disease, thus securing food and livelihoods for human beings. Dr. Omura’s work has relieved innumerable people from fear of disease or shortage of food, and helps them to live a healthy life. For this, he won the Canada Gairdner Global Health Award in 2014 and Asahi Prize in 2015.

2012: Shinya Yamanaka, Ph.D.

Photo: Creative Commons Attr. 2.0 Generic license

Born in Osaka in 1962. Received his M.D. from Kobe University in 1987, then began work as a resident in orthopedic surgery at National Osaka Hospital. His work with a certain patient, who was suffering from severe rheumatism, inspired him to choose to work in research, where he could dedicate himself to helping patients facing serious illnesses. In 1989, he began a PhD at Osaka City University Graduate School, and was awarded his doctorate in 1993. His years of study were characterized by a deep thirst for learning; he would often spent his nights sleeplessly, instead choosing to continue work on his research. Subsequent to receiving his PhD, he began a postdoctoral fellowship at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco. Here, he began his work on genes and on embryonic stem (ES) cells—before they had attracted much interest. In 1999, he took up a position as Associate Professor at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, a move which prompted him to start focusing on the development of inducted pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. He moved to Kyoto University in 2004, where he developed the world’s first iPS cells, in 2006, using mouse fibroblasts, quickly followed by his success, in 2007, of generating iPS cells from human skin.
He has received many awards in the course of his career; he was named winner of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2009 and is a Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate. In 2012, he was named joint winner, with Sir John B. Gurdon of the University of Cambridge, of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, for the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent.
Today, Dr. Yamanaka is a professor and the Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University, and is also a senior investigator at the J. David Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco. Today, the iPS cell technology that he developed is progressing at a speed surprising even to its creator. For example, a clinical trial using iPS cell technology is scheduled to begin in 2013, led by Professor Masayo Takahashi and her team at RIKEN. This study will use iPS cells to treat age-related macular degeneration.

1987: Susumu Tonegawa, Ph.D.

Susumu Tonegawa was born in Aichi prefecture in 1939. After graduated from with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the School of Science, Kyoto University, Tonegawa moved to the United States to study at the University of California, San Diego, where he received his Ph.D. Since then, he has continued his research on molecular biology in the United States. Using microbiological techniques to compare the DNA of early embryonic mice with the DNA of B cells, a type of white blood cell, in adult mice able to produce certain antibodies, Tonegawa discovered that when the embryonic DNA differentiates into B cells, the necessary genes are recombined; this finding made a significant contribution to our understanding of the principle of antibody generation. Tonegawa received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his “discovery of the genetic principle for generation of antibody diversity”. Recently his work has branched out into the fields of brain science and neuroscience, and he continues his work from his base in the United States.