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Visit of Prof. Dr. Yamanaka to the University of Zurich

16. September 2022

Dear Professor Shinya Yamanaka, welcome to the University of Zurich! It’s an honor to have you here.
I would also like to extend a warm welcome to His Excellency, Kojiro Shiraishi, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the Swiss Confederation.

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this Public Lecture, organized by the Europa Institute at the University of Zurich. With Professor Shinya Yamanaka, the Europa Institute managed to invite a very special guest, whom we are delighted to welcome today.

Professor Yamanaka is a medical doctor and a stem cell researcher at Kyoto University in Japan. In 2006, he made a discovery that revolutionized our understanding of how cells and organisms develop. He found that adult somatic cells can be reprogrammed into an embryonic-like pluripotent state by delivering transcription factors. These reprogrammed cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells – so called iPSCs –, have the potential to develop into every cell type of the body. Accordingly, they are invaluable tools for disease modeling, drug screening, and cell therapy. For the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, Professor Yamanaka, together with John Gurdon, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2012.  

Two years earlier, Professor Yamanaka founded the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application – CiRA – at Kyoto University and served as its director until April this year. Since 2017, CiRA and the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Zurich have been closely working together in the field of next generation cell therapy. Research internships at both institutions and collaborative publications serve as two examples of this successful cooperation.

But the links between UZH and the Kyoto University go beyond this specific area of research. In 2020, the two universities entered a strategic partnership to strengthen our existing relationship in research. One focus area of the partnership with Kyoto University is “Society 5.0”, a term coined by the Japanese government, envisioning a “super-smart” society that is sustainable, inclusive and sustained by digital technologies. Other existing and emerging fields of collaboration are in plant science, artificial intelligence and law as well as global history. Personally, I am very proud that we established a partnership with the second oldest national Japanese university and one of Asia’s highest ranked universities. Japan is one of the top research countries in the world and it shares a lot with Switzerland. We are both countries with substantial innovative power and run many, excellent as well as independent research institutions. I therefore look very much forward to continue working together on innovative solutions. We further underline this collaboration with our vice president Christian Schwarzenegger and his extended stay in Kyoto and my visit in two weeks from now as well. I would like to thank Christian at this point for his support in strengthening this collaboration as well.

But let me now turn again to our special guest, Shinya Yamanaka, and share with you another fascinating detail about his person. Nobel Prize laureate Yamanaka is not only one of the most well-known scientists in Japan – he is as popular as a pop star!, but also a vivid marathon runner. You can regularly see him running through the streets of Kyoto, where he is practicing for his next race. Together with a famous Japanese clothing company, he designed a Yamanaka charity T-Shirt, which is very handy to wear during workouts.  As you all may know, this Japanese brand is very famous in Switzerland, be-cause of our most known tennis star; well: to be precise: he was until yesterday. From now on, I predict the Yamanaka T-Shirt to constantly gain in importance and impact, outperforming the brand value of our now retired tennis champion.

But running is also science. Professor Yamanaka likes marathon because it is a kind of a mini science. In an online video where you can see him running through the rainy streets of Oslo, he explains, and I quote: “A marathon is often very painful in the course. But after that, we can finish it and we can feel accomplishment. My record is 3h 27 minutes. Science takes a bit longer, 2 years, 3 years, but after that pain, it’s very rewarding.”  I am sure there is already a new marathon record time of yours! Anyway, Professor Yamanaka, I think you are the best example that in science it is worth going through painful times and to see in every failed experiment as a new chance of future success.

Dear Professor Yamanaka, thank you again for being here and for your continued support of the research collaboration between Japan and Switzerland. I am now very much looking forward to your talk about recent progress in iPS cell research and to your vision for the coming years.

Mr Yamanaka, please, the floor is yours.