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10 years after discovery of iPS cells, patients still eagerly await new treatments

Shigeyuki Shimamori uses his computer via the movement of his eyes to input letters, and uses tubes attached to his mouth when his eyes get tired, in Tokyo's Kita Ward, on Nov. 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

Nov. 21 marked the 10th anniversary of the synthesis of human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells by a team including those from Kyoto University, but those suffering from debilitating diseases are still waiting expectantly for treatments utilizing the cells.

"My wife encouraged me by saying, 'Let's make a 10-year treatment plan,'" recalls former Foreign Ministry official Shigeyuki Shimamori, 50, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2008. ALS is a serious disease that kills the neurons that control voluntary muscles, causing muscles all over the body to waste away. There are at least 9,000 patients with ALS in Japan.

Shimamori joined the Foreign Ministry in 1990, and belonged to the division in charge of Afghanistan during the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and participated in the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan as a chief administrative official. He was diagnosed with ALS at age 41 when he was serving as a diplomat in India.

Breathing on his own has become difficult, and he underwent surgery in 2011 to open his windpipe and have breathing equipment inserted, losing his ability to speak. In 2015, he could no longer move his fingers, and he began operating his computer using a switch that reacts to the movements of his eyes or tubes that attach to his mouth.

Shimamori can no longer move his body, but he is still fully conscious and feels pain. He is motivated by the promise of iPS cell research, but "progress hasn't been as fast as I'd thought," he says. Still, there is hope. Last year, a Keio University team investigated nerve cells synthesized from the iPS cells of an ALS patient, and was able to identify the gene that causes the disease. What's more, researchers at Kyoto University this year discovered a promising candidate for a medicine that prevents cell death caused by ALS using those nerve cells.

These developments were presented at a research conference held by the Japan Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association on Nov. 19. Shimamori attended in a wheelchair and spoke to patients and other related parties from around the country to join him over the internet.

"My dream is to be able to walk, talk and eat and drink with my wife and friends again," Shimamori says. "I'm going to keep waiting without giving up hope."

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