Utilize science, technology for beneficial purposes

I recently enjoyed a classical concert at a packed hall for the first time in three years. I was thrilled to see the orchestra members performing so energetically, as if they were trying hard to make up for lost time from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As an encore, the orchestra played music that Russian composer Tchaikovsky is said to have created out of his affection for Ukraine. As I listened to the beautiful melody, a worrisome thought came to mind: Have we human beings living in the 21st century made progress in comparison to the 19th century, when the music was composed? I thought about this as Russian troops intensify their offensive in Ukraine — a country to which Tchaikovsky was connected — leading to the destruction of many cities and facilities.

There has been rapid progress in science and technology, of course. Tchaikovsky lost his mother to cholera when he was young, and some people say he also died from cholera. But although that disease has menaced mankind since before the common era, cholera now poses far less risk than in the 19th century, thanks to the improvement in water and sewerage infrastructure and the development of relevant vaccines.

One effective therapeutic drug after another has been developed for many other diseases that were once incurable, resulting in longer average longevity. COVID-19 vaccines have been developed at an unprecedented speed.

Since the 19th century, people’s livelihoods have improved. The world has been connected through the development of aircraft and the internet. The advancement of science and technology has greatly contributed to the happiness of mankind.

However, the development of science and technology has a negative side as well. Advances in medicine have led to an increase in human populations, while industrial development has caused a scarcity of water and the depletion of resources. Deforestation, among other factors behind environmental degradation, has brought humans and wild animals closer to each other, to the extent that we fear the outbreak of new infectious diseases. Ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide are to blame for climate warming, which poses a great threat to the global environment. Worst of all, mankind possesses weapons of mass destruction that could obliterate our planet.

Science and technology are double-edged swords. It is up to mankind whether science and technology actually benefit people and the Earth as a whole. This means that humans for their part need to make progress in parallel with the rapid evolution of science and technology.

The reason why science and technology keep improving at an accelerating pace is because researchers record their research achievements so that their counterparts in future generations can explore those findings further.

Learn lessons from the past

Humans coexisted with Neanderthals, another human species, tens of thousands of years ago. Neanderthals are thought to have had larger brains than the ancestors of modern humans did. Why do we remain alive while Neanderthals became extinct? There is a theory that our ancestors were better at passing on skills and lessons from generation to generation.

After experiencing two world wars in the 20th century, we are supposed to have learned the stupidity of war. That said, will we be able to bequeath a beautiful Earth to future generations by learning the lessons of the past and using science and technology for virtuous purposes?

Life science is also a double-edged sword. The advancements in life science achieved just since the inception of the 21st century have been astonishing and beyond my expectations. In the 20th century, thousands of scientists spent hundreds of billions of yen and more than 10 years decoding the human genome that forms the blueprint for human cells.

Nowadays, a single device can complete the same process in one night. The evolution of genome-decoding technology and genetic engineering helped realize the practical application of COVID-19 vaccines in the phenomenal time frame of less than one year.

Genome editing was developed in 2012 to enable humans not only to decode the blueprint of life but also to modify it at will. There has been rapid progress since then in applying this genetic breakthrough to the treatment of a host of hereditary or genetic diseases.

To what extent should the blueprint of humans be allowed to be modified? There is little opposition to using genetic modification inside the bodies of patients suffering from genetic diseases to relieve their symptoms. But many people are cautious about using it to alter defective genes at the fertilized egg stage, as this would affect future generations. Even more people oppose gene editing for non-medical purposes, including, for example, increasing muscle mass in order to run faster.

With gene editing technology available to them, will humans utilize the lessons of the past? Mankind has the dark history of eugenics, which was a movement launched by people who interpreted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in their own way, seeking to select and pass on the genetic composition of the human race. The eugenics movement that prevailed in the world at the beginning of the 20th century became one of the factors behind the forced sterilization of the physically handicapped and the Nazi regime’s Holocaust.

I want to believe that mankind has learned from history enough to not repeat the same mistakes. However, as we witness the invasion of Ukraine, I feel anxious.

‘Valley of Death’ obstacles

With regard to medical research, I have another concern about the rising costs of new medical treatments. We see the development of one therapeutic drug after another, each costing tens of millions of yen per patient. There are cases in which a single shot of a medicine costs more than ¥150 million. One reason why these treatments are so expensive is the existence of the “Valley of Death” coupled with “Western-style development” solutions to overcome it.

Basic research discoveries at universities and other institutions are used as the foundation for many breakthrough medical treatments. Nevertheless, university-level research itself is insufficient to deliver new treatments to patients. Only when pharmaceutical companies choose to develop such discoveries into drugs for practical use can thousands or even tens of thousands of patients be saved. The obstacles between universities and drug makers that keep new treatments from being developed are referred to as the Valley of Death.

The funding available for a single university research project amounts to a few million yen or tens of millions of yen. However, pharmaceutical companies need to invest as much as tens of billions of yen or even more than ¥100 billion for each full-fledged drug development project. The financial scale of universities and drug manufacturers is therefore completely different. In Western countries, startups with abundant venture capital often serve as a bridge over the Valley of Death, successfully helping realize new drug development. One such example is the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

Of course, investment needs to yield returns. When a company successfully develops a new drug, it is likely to push the pharmaceutical price as high as possible. Japan has continued to run an annual trade deficit of a few trillion yen in pharmaceutical products. If nothing is done, the inequality in medical care and the outflow of the nation’s wealth will be exacerbated.

In Japan, too, startups are active in various sectors. But it should be noted that the circumstances surrounding medical research and development have their own attributes that are different from other sectors. For instance, drug development can often take more than 10 years. As an R&D project progresses, it tends to get costlier and costlier. We have to admit that Japan is not any closer to catching up with the West in terms of investment capabilities to support development endeavors at home. There are certain drugs whose development was suspended by Japanese firms and successfully completed by foreign rivals instead. Subsequently, Japan now has to import them at high prices.

Japan leads the world in carrying out research and development on regenerative medicine using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Yet, it is noteworthy that some foreign countries are sharply increasing similar investments. At Kyoto University, we have the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA). The center has as its offshoot the CiRA Foundation, which has been fully functioning since April 2020 as a bridge for the promotion of related development efforts in Japan. The foundation’s activities are backed by financial support from the Japanese government and donations from the general public.

The CiRA Foundation’s mission is to deliver the best iPS cell technology to society at an affordable price. We must not allow the iPS cell technology that originated in Japan to fail to pass through the Valley of Death. We want to fulfill the abovementioned mission in earnest as a bridge within Japan, delivering the iPS cell technology to every patient at an appropriate price.

Shinya Yamanaka

Yamanaka, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for generating induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, is a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA). He was the director of the center until March 2022. He is also the Representative Director of the CiRA Foundation.