Creating new ways and bringing about hope
Beta Cell Therapy Project
Industry and academia-Researchers in different positions are working together in tandem at T-CiRA in order to create new power. Ryo Ito uses this power to discover new ways.
This is it! I saw some hope in iPS cells
"I guess pharmaceutical companies don't really want to develop drugs that actually cure diseases. When all diseases become curable, no one will need to buy the drugs," a certain person outside the healthcare industry once mentioned to me.
These words attacked me in a severe way, and were really very hard to take. I have been committed to the development of treatments for diabetes mellitus since long before joining the T-CiRA program. The process of creating new treatments is just like walking alone in the dark. Since joining Takeda, I have been heavily committed to research and development in order to save people living with diabetes. However, I could not find any definitive treatments for the disease. I had to face the gap between the ideal and reality and the gap between what I believed in and what others may think about me.
I found some hope though with the iPS cell technology, as a means to narrow these gaps. When I used iPS cells to create pancreatic beta cells and transplanted these cells into diabetes model mice, the condition improved. "This is it!" I thought. By using iPS cells, I can access the causes of diabetes and could even cure the disease. I was simply thrilled with the potential of iPS cell technologies. "This can truly cure patients!" I therefore decided to focus on iPS cell technology to develop a cure for diabetes.
I am part of a project dedicated to establishing a treatment for brittle diabetes, a severe form of type 1 diabetes mellitus. Currently, insulin injections are the only treatment method for people living with this type of diabetes. We are now developing a new treatment in which pancreatic beta cells, which produce and release insulin, from iPS cells and transplant these beta cells to patients in order to help them control their blood glucose levels for extended periods of time.
My starting point
As a university student, I used to study in this lab. I went out with senior students to buy coffee beans for the lab, and we talked a lot about our research on the way to the coffee shop. My research subject involved how to evaluate astrocytes.
Challenges with clinical applications
There are some challenges to overcome before this curable treatment will become available to patients. We have to solve many challenges to bring our research achievements in the laboratory to actual clinical settings.
Firstly, we have to establish the safety of iPS-derived pancreatic beta cells that are to be transplanted into a patient's body. We are planning to transplant billions of iPS-derived pancreatic beta cells for each patient. The number of cells is much higher than those used in the treatment of other diseases in clinical. If undifferentiated iPS cells are in the iPS-derived beta cells to be transplanted, they may cause tumors in patients even though the number of undifferentiated cells is very small. We therefore must remove all such undifferentiated cells before a transplantation. We are now establishing a validation system to confirm the absence of undifferentiated iPS cells, which might be useful for other iPS cell-based treatments. At least this is what I hope for.
Secondly, we have to establish as to how to produce iPS-derived beta cells for clinical use. We need to establish a method with which everyone can produce a large amount of high-quality beta cells any time. The stability and accuracy requirements for cells to be implanted to patients are much higher than those used in laboratories. Our team needs not only expertise in iPS cell technologies but also expertise and techniques related to engineering. I would like to develop experts who are good at both through the T-CiRA program.
We are also required to find a suitable device that carries iPS cell-derived beta cells for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. As patients with type 1 diabetes have autoimmunity that target beta cells, iPS cell-derived beta cells are broken instantly when they are not protected. It is necessary to find a special device that can protect beta cells from the immune system. As we do not have expertise in such device technology, we are now openly communicating with Takeda R&D departments and medical device companies to work with as a means to develop a solution.
Free-minded ideas and expanded network
Advantages to working with academic researchers
Joining the T-CiRA program became a major turning point for me. Both developing new treatments using iPS cell technologies and working together with academic researchers were all new concepts for me.
Since 2004, I have been committed as an industrial researcher in drug discoveries. After starting to work with academic researchers, I found out many differences between industrial and academic researchers in terms of design and the actual concept of research. Academic researchers think in a free-minded or an unconventional way to provide different types of ideas, while having diverse networks with researchers and physicians at other institutions and companies. Their wide network helps to expand options for new treatment developments and encourage us to provide treatments to as many patients as possible. At the same time, industrial researchers are good at team building and also "selection and concentration." For our project, Dr. Taro Toyoda from CiRA at Kyoto University, who is the principal investigator of the project, is leading strategy of our project and external scientific communications pertaining to iPS cell technologies and literature publications, while I lead with tasks requiring agility to take advantage of our diverse team mix. I am confident that our team consisting of industrial and academic researchers is creating synergy: One plus one is equal to three or even four, rather than just two.
However, our industry-and-academia team has not achieved the ideal state yet. Literature publication is one of the challenges that hinder us in terms of achieving our ideal research group. Publishing literature is a very important step for career developing for academic researchers. Industrial researchers, on the other hand, often do not publish literature in describing their research findings, which are often used to commercialize their products under development. Academic researchers joining the T-CiRA program often feel difficulty in balancing this gap, to which we are now seeking solutions.
Another challenge is the barriers between organizations. Members from different organization have different reporting structures. Some information is available only to members of a specific organization. It is not easy for us to overcome these challenges, but we are doing our best with sharing information as much as possible and having on-job and off-job communication opportunities, as a means not to create any barriers between industrial and academic researchers.
T-CiRA and me
T-CiRA is a joint research program that will pave a way where none has walked before through collaborating with diverse researchers who have expertise in various different areas. With the T-CiRA program, academic and industrial researchers work closely together in diverse areas to proceed with a wide range of collaborative research projects.
Creating new way where none has walked before
I underwent surgery for retinal detachment seven years ago. Retinal detachment used to be a common cause of blindness but can now be treated with laser surgery in just several days. The advances of medical technologies are really amazing.
I am very confident that iPS cell technologies can change the quality of life for many patients. As laser surgery can cure retinal detachment, diseases without a cure may become treatable with iPS cell-based treatments in just one day 50 years from now. I believe that iPS cells can achieve such a "new normal."
To my future colleagues
T-CiRA is just like a painter's palette. Different colors are mixed to create new colors and paintings. Please join us in creating new colors.
The T-CiRA program has a unique culture that accepts failures as Professor Shinya Yamanaka, who discovered iPS cells, has continued encouraging us to try repeatedly by saying "When you get unexpected results, think hard as to why and try to find the reasons." When the T-CiRA program was launched five years ago, I never imagined that we would be able to create pancreas tissues like we have now.
"Creating a new way where none has walked before" is the greatest pleasure of belonging to the T-CiRA project. During the first five years of this project, I worked hard on team building. I hope that I can enjoy my time with this team and foster young talent during the next five years. I will continue studying and trying.
Joined Takeda to conduct drug discovery research for diabetes mellitus. He is a co-principal investigator from Takeda in the T-CiRA Beta Cell Therapy Project dealing with the development of cell therapy for the treatment of type 1 diabetes mellitus. He has worked together with Dr. Taro Toyoda, who is a principal investigator from CiRA at Kyoto University, to develop iPS cell-derived pancreatic beta cells (iPIC). He is developing clinical applications of iPIC with a special device to keep the cells in the body.