National / Science & Health

Curiosity is prizewinning researcher’s driving force

by Ko Shu-Ling

Kyodo

The Japanese co-winner of the first Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science last year said Monday that curiosity is the key driving force behind his success, an element he said is important in scientific research.

Tasuku Honjo, an immunology and genomic medicine professor at Kyoto University, said his advice for people who want to pursue a career in scientific research is what he called the “six Cs”: curiosity, courage, challenges, continuation, concentration and confidence.

“Curiosity is the most important,” he said in English before giving a talk in Taipei.

He added that he has been always curious about the immune system and ways to fight cancer.

Honjo and U.S. immunologist James Allison shared the inaugural Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science for their discoveries of PD-1 and CTLA-4 as immune inhibitory molecules that together help reveal ways to harness the immune system to fight cancer.

The two each received 25 million New Taiwan dollars (about ¥100 million) in prize money. Of the award, NT$10 million must be used for research.

Honjo discovered PD-1 in 1992. PD-1 plays a critical role in anticancer immunity and autoimmunity.

A former member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Honjo said he faced a dilemma at his 30s when he had to choose between staying in the United States or returning to Japan.

He said his boss “highly recommended” him to stay in the United States as the “situation of scientific research in Japan was bad” at that time.

He decided to return to Japan anyway, thinking that he should at least try once in his lifetime to do something for his home country, particularly the scientific community.

He was also reluctant to force his family to adjust to an entirely different environment, he said.

His decision proved prescient, as Japan’s economy began to take off after his return, leading to a significant increase in funding for scientific research projects.

Honjo said frustrations are inevitable along the way. However, his insatiable curiosity has always driven him to explore the unknown and provided him with the courage to challenge the status quo, he said.