The stem cell research program at the Gladstone Institutes has been given a major boost thanks to the generosity of Hiroshi Mikitani and Marc Benioff. From left to right: Deepak Srivastava, Hiroshi Mikitani, Shinya Yamanaka, Marc Benioff, Sandy Williams. [Photo: Chris Goodfellow]


The regenerative medicine program at the Gladstone Institutes has attracted the attention of two global business leaders known for their innovative approach to philanthropy.

Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce, pledged $5 million to Gladstone after hearing Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD, speak about game-changing advances in stem cell technology. Mr. Benioff then challenged friend and fellow philanthropist Hiroshi Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, Inc. (Japan), to join him in his support. Responding to the challenge, Mr. Mikitani said he would match the pledge with a gift to Gladstone and Kyoto University, where Dr. Yamanaka also has a lab, but only if Mr. Benioff would support Dr. Yamanaka’s work in Kyoto, too.

“This friendly exchange has resulted in critical funding for Dr. Yamanaka and his collaborating scientists across continents,” says R. Sanders Williams, MD, president of the Gladstone Institutes. “We are extremely grateful for the generous gifts from Mr. Benioff and Mr. Mikitani.”

Dr. Yamanaka is a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) at Kyoto University. In 2012, Dr. Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of how to transform ordinary adult skin cells into stem cells by adding just four key genes. Like embryonic stem cells, these induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells can develop into virtually any other type of cell in the body. This breakthrough fundamentally transformed the fields of developmental biology and stem cell research, revealing new avenues for both personalized and regenerative medicine.

Since receiving the gifts from Mr. Benioff and Mr. Mikitani in early 2015, Dr. Yamanaka has made substantial progress, improving the process by which skin cells can be turned into stem cells. At Gladstone, Dr. Yamanaka’s work focuses on revealing how the four added genes change a cell’s fate. Understanding the mechanisms underlying cellular reprogramming will allow scientists to produce iPS cells more efficiently and with higher quality, which is an essential step towards using iPS cells in clinical studies. This type of basic research has also opened the door to a second generation of cellular reprogramming, in which one type of adult cell can be converted directly into another without having to go through a pluripotent stem cell state first. Using this technology, Gladstone scientists are working to change scar tissue in the heart after a heart attack into healthy, beating heart muscle cells. The researchers hope to one day cure heart disease through this approach.

Armed with iPS cell technology, Dr. Yamanaka and other Gladstone researchers have also achieved breakthroughs in disease modeling and drug discovery. For example, scientists can now create brain cells from the skin cells of patients with Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, allowing them to study and test drugs on neurons that have the same gene mutations as the patient. This type of “clinical trial in a dish” advances drug discovery research and fosters a personalized medicine approach to treating terminal illnesses.

“The stem cell research undertaken by Dr. Yamanaka and his team has astonishing potential to unlock age-old medical puzzles and save lives,” says Mr. Mikitani. “I am deeply honored to support the efforts of Dr. Yamanaka and his team in creating the right research environment for the fruits of this work to flourish and to accelerate progress toward profoundly meaningful discoveries for medical science and humankind.”

Deepak Srivastava, MD, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease and director of stem cell research at Gladstone says, “Dr. Yamanaka sets the highest standard, and his work exemplifies our motto of Science Overcoming Disease. Many labs at Gladstone are using and extending Dr. Yamanaka’s discovery to cure some of mankind’s worst ailments."

Setting up the lab for further successes, Dr. Yamanaka’s long-time associate Kazutoshi Takahashi, PhD, recently joined the Gladstone Institutes, a move made possible by the support from Mr. Benioff and Mr. Mikitani. Dr. Takahashi collaborated with Dr. Yamanaka on his Nobel Prize-winning discovery, serving as lead author on the series of landmark papers that first described the reprogramming of adult skin cells into iPS cells.

Dr. Takahashi is a leading expert in two areas of cellular reprogramming: investigating the intermediate stage of the reprogramming process when a cell changes from an adult state to the “pluripotent” state, and evaluating the differentiation potential and quality of iPS cells. His technical skill and experience complete an already high caliber stem cell program at Gladstone. The move also bolsters the scientific bond between the US and Japan, fostering future collaborations between Gladstone and Kyoto—two epicenters for stem cell research.

Dr. Yamanaka notes, “The generosity of these two exceptional people has contributed to a strong science bridge between the US and Japan. Both programs are now in a better position to develop the most promising applications of stem cell technology.”

Mr. Benioff commented, "Philanthropy plays an important role in empowering brilliant scientists like Dr. Yamanaka to follow their best instincts and achieve incredible breakthroughs in the fight against disease. I am honored to support Dr. Yamanaka's iPS Cell Research Fund, which offers great promise for the field of regenerative medicine."