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Kyoto Univ. researchers apply stem cell tech in advancing battle against coronavirus

Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from a patient that was infected with the coronavirus are seen in this photo provided by Kiichiro Tomoda, a member of Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application.

OSAKA -- Scientists at Kyoto University are advancing research to shed light on the coronavirus and develop treatments via induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology, as they look to propel Japan to the forefront in the global battle against the virus, which is showing no signs of abating.

    A team led by Hiroshi Kawamoto, professor of immunology at Kyoto University's Institute for Frontier Life and Medical Sciences, aims to develop a coronavirus treatment by creating "killer" cytotoxic T cells in the bloodstream from iPS cells, which can change into other types of cells, and administering them to patients.

    Cytotoxic T cells play an important role in the immune response of cells, recognizing and killing infected or damaged cells including cancer cells. Professor Kawamoto and other researchers had already developed technology to create the cells from iPS cells, and had confirmed the effectiveness of the treatment using mouse models of cancer.

    The team's plan is to program iPS cells with genes which can recognize the new coronavirus before differentiating them into cytotoxic T cells and stocking them up so that they can be administered to patients as a medical agent before they develop serious symptoms. The program was adopted for promotion in fiscal 2020 by the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development.

    Kawamoto explained, "Cytotoxic T cells that attack infected cells work closely together with antibodies, and it is believed that people with more cytotoxic T cells are less likely to develop severe symptoms. In two or three years we aim to conduct clinical trials and hope to make practical use (of the technology) as soon as possible."

    Research on the coronavirus separately began at Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) this spring under the guidance of director and Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka. Roughly 20 researchers are involved in about 10 projects. Their research has been supported with a 500-million-yen donation from Tadashi Yanai, the chairman and president of Fast Retailing Co., which operates casual clothing brand Uniqlo, as well as through the donation of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test devices by Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group.

    Yamanaka isn't a specialist on infectious diseases, but has shown strong interest in the matter as he has opened a personal website on COVID-19, and has managed coronavirus-related programs by calling on CiRA members to take part and by hosting online conferences, among other activities.

    Toru Kawamura, specially appointed professor at Kyoto University and head of the director's office supervising CiRA, commented, "Everyone at the lab wants to contribute to overcoming the unprecedented pandemic as a medical scientist."

    A pillar of the projects is being able to identify patients' conditions. In order to do so, researchers create iPS cells from blood samples of various people including those who have been infected, and differentiate them into miniature organs including lungs and cardiac muscles. Researchers then infect them with the coronavirus and observe the differences in the severity of symptoms.

    Jun Saito, an associate professor who leads the project to elucidate pathological conditions, said, "Some who do not have underlying conditions develop severe symptoms, and genetic factors may be at play. By using cells from actual coronavirus patients, we can observe the details of the behavior of the virus."

    CiRA is also involved in developing vaccines through the use of basic technology to create virus-like particles. Fourteen years have passed since director Yamanaka first succeeded in creating iPS cells in mice.

    Saito told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We want to use mature iPS cell technology to discover the details of the disease and make use of it to develop countermeasures."

    (Japanese original by Yuki Noguchi, Osaka Science & Environment News Department)

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