Scientist aims to improve research methodology in Japan

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TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Pref. — Japan has some work to do if it wants to catch up with Europe and the United States in the field of life sciences, according to a leader in the field here.

Toru Imamura, a leading genetic researcher on the proteins that regulate hair growth believes young researchers must be given environments in which they can conduct studies more freely if the trend is to be reversed.

Life sciences are widely viewed as having the potential to bring about drastic developments in the medical- and health-related industries in the 21st century.

“Unlike material science, life science has yet to establish methodology, so scientists in the field do not know which research will bring forth which results,” explained Imamura, deputy director of the Age Dimension Research Center at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

In fact, the 46-year-old Imamura unexpectedly discovered during research conducted with Pola Cosmetics Inc. several years ago that a type of the fibroblast growth factor gene family — FGF-5S — inhibits the function of another FGF gene type that stunts hair growth.

The scientist started studying the FGF genes in 1984. He opted to take a different scientific approach to the subject, however, during his stint as a visiting scientist at the American Red Cross’s Jerome Holland Laboratory for Biomedical Sciences in Rockville, Md., between 1988 and 1991.

Stiff competition among researchers is prevalent in the U.S. But scientists whose research is recognized as valuable can take advantage of environments that allow them to conduct experiments more freely, Imamura said.

In Japan, on the other hand, “carrying out original research is difficult, especially for young scientists,” he observed.

When a research grant is allotted for studies, for example, ideas that are not based on the values held by the judges — usually established scholars — are more likely to be rejected, according to the scientist.

He says this situation can be a serious problem in scientific fields with numerous unknowns, like life science.

Conducting scientific research in the U.S. “is like driving on a highway,” the researcher said, “while in Japan, it’s like being in a traffic jam. Japanese researchers have excellent driving techniques, but there is no road for them to demonstrate their abilities here.”

While these systematic problems exist, the government is nevertheless reinforcing efforts to develop biotechnology.

In July, for instance, the AIST began a program to support venture businesses that try to commercialize the institute’s patents and expertise by providing incentives. Such inducements may include low-rent research space on the institution’s premises.

In addition, when AIST researchers hold posts in venture businesses, 50 percent of the intellectual property rights for their inventions is transferred to the firms.

Taking advantage of the scheme, Imamura, who also serves as a professor at the University of Tsukuba, founded his own bioventure, Advangen, Inc. He currently serves as a scientific adviser to the firm, which he created in February with three other AIST scientists.

Advangen is expected to utilize Imamura’s findings from his FGF studies. They will likely lead to the production of new hair tonics and the development of new medical treatments for diseases, including periodontal maladies and stomach ulcers.

“I’d like to return the scientific results of my research to society (through the company),” he said. “Seeing products born from my discoveries put on the market, I would get a sense of accomplishment.”