Accelerating Basic Research in Biochemistry by Integrating Technology with Other Fields

Acaric Journal
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“AJ branch-off edition” is a category of articles which past published in “Acaric Journal”, a career magazine for graduate students and researchers published by Acaric Co., Ltd., or fresh articles only available on the web. This time, we bring you the articles from vol.2.

Dr. Okuda, who made possible the efficient purification of IgM, a technical problem that had long remained unsolved, did not initially aspire to become a researcher but rather to work locally as a science teacher. Dr. Okuda unexpectedly became a researcher due to the winds of the times and achieved excellent results. It may be due to his perseverance in pursuing fundamental research and his aggressiveness in proactively proposing collaborative research.

— What kind of research are you doing?

 I am conducting research in the field of biochemistry within the field of medicine. My research targets molecules called “sugar chains,” which are “sugars” such as glucose linked together like a “chain.” When these sugar chains are combined with proteins and lipids, they are called glycoproteins and glycolipids. We are studying the properties of these substances called glycolipids. In the process, we have revealed that glycolipids have the property of strongly inducing antibodies. We are developing unique antibodies that recognize sugar chains by applying this immunity mechanism.

 The industry to which this research is relevant is the pharmaceutical industry. The human body has many sugar chains with characteristic structures that can be markers of diseases. In particular, cancer cells have specific sugar chains, and if these can be detected, they can be applied to test drugs. When microorganisms or viruses infect cells, they use the sugar chains on the cell surface as receptors, so they can also be involved in treating infectious diseases.

 Generally, we use antibodies to recognize proteins, but in this joint research, we have developed a technology to purify antibodies that recognize sugar chains, called IgM. IgM is generally considered a less mature antibody, but antibodies that recognize sugar chains can produce IgM with very high precision. However, there has been no means to purify IgM as a challenge in industrial applications efficiently. However, it was discovered that IgM could be purified using unique ceramics owned by Japan Special Ceramics Co. Ltd.

 The company is mainly engaged in developing unique ceramics for use in automobile engine spark plugs, etc. They are exploring the possibility of applying ceramics to other industrial markets and are attempting to create ceramics for antibody purification as one of the applications. I learned about this at a technology introduction event held by the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), which led me to pursue this research.

— How did you become a researcher after your school days?

 I originally wanted to become a science teacher and entered Aichi University of Education. At that time, I did not intend to become a researcher, but during the “ice age” of employment, the number of people wanting to become teachers significantly increased. Since colleges of education play a role as an adjustment valve for the number of teachers, the university advised us to find a job other than teaching from an early stage. So, I job-hunted and received a job offer from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a university graduate. Since I could find a job early on, I was in an environment where I could easily enjoy my graduation research, and since I had time, I worked diligently on it until late at night. Then, by chance, I discovered one of the critical genes for synthesizing sugar chains. My supervising professor at that time highly evaluated my achievement and strongly recommended I go to graduate school, so I started to aspire to become a researcher.

 Later, I learned that sugar chains are closely related to human diseases, and I became interested in researching sugar chains related to diseases. I knew that such research was possible at the Department of Biochemistry, Nagoya University School of Medicine, which was one of the best in its field at that time, and I moved to that laboratory from the doctoral course. In that laboratory, I researched sugar chains directly related to mammalian diseases using knockout mice in which the genes that produce sugar chains had been destroyed. At that time, research in this field took a lot of time and effort because the first step was to create knockout mice. I continued my research steadily and eventually discovered the glycolipids’ function in certain infectious diseases, earning me a Ph.D. Six months before I finished my doctoral course, the glycolipid laboratory at AIST was looking for researchers, and I applied for and got a position. I was a tenure-track researcher and was first assigned to a regional center in Shikoku, where I started my career as a researcher.

— Why did you decide to become a science teacher?

 My parents live in the countryside of Hiroshima Prefecture, and I thought I would eventually return there to work. Teaching is a fascinating job that allows me to contribute to the community. I am working as a researcher now rather than aiming for prominent journals. I strongly desire to do something with local companies by promoting practical applications. As a researcher at AIST, I can contribute to local companies in various ways, such as through joint research, so I am happy either way.

— What direction do you think the biochemistry field will take?

 Biochemistry is a traditional field with a very long history. Therefore, most of the major research has been done in this field, and achieving good results in biochemistry has become challenging. On the other hand, as in this case, I believe that novel and exciting research results can be obtained through fusion research with other fields, both in basic and applied research.

 Glycolipids and glycans, my research subjects, are also “the royal road of biochemistry” and have been studied for a long time. Still, they are complicated subjects to handle compared to genes and proteins, so they are not moving forward. While genes and proteins are attracting attention and research is progressing rapidly, research on glycans is stagnant and has become a problem at academic conferences. Because trendy fields are easy to produce results and attract money and people, the glycoscience field has become a minority. However, by fusing with other domains, we can expect significant progress in the technology for dealing with glycans. We believe such fusion research will revolutionize therapeutic and diagnostic technologies for diseases related to glycans and enable new development in related industries.

— What career paths do doctoral students in this field pursue after graduation?

 Many become university faculty members, researchers in research institutes, or researchers in pharmaceutical, food, and materials companies. Compared to when I was a student, the number of students has decreased. And the percentage of students going to graduate school has also dropped dramatically, so I hear that both AIST and companies are having difficulty securing human resources for research positions. AIST is mainly looking for people with doctoral degrees. Still, the number of people entering doctoral programs is decreasing, so the number of people coming to AIST is even smaller. We have even considered actively recruiting from overseas to secure human resources. AIST is looking for motivated students who want to work in research, so please apply.

— What are AIST’s appealing points or advantages of working at AIST?

 The advantage of working at AIST is that you can spend 70-80% of your time a year on your research. However, since there are no students, university professors tell me that the atmosphere is too calm and that it would be better to have young people to make it more lively.

 In reality, AIST has various forms of work. There is not only research but also the management of research units, management, and planning of the institute, and secondment to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the higher organization, to exchange information. There is also a “patent officer,” a position specializing in intellectual property applications and management, and an “innovation coordinator,” a role that bridges the gap between specialized research and the business community. I think these jobs are genuinely unique to AIST. Research can take many forms, but AIST differs from others in that it offers a variety of options, not just “conducting experiments.

 These positions are not something you apply for and have as your job; everyone is hired as a researcher first. Then, after about 10 years in a research position, there is an opportunity for a career change when you have reached a certain point in your career. It is like a turning point where you can choose an occupation other than research, such as “I want to go to the management side” or “I want to become an intellectual property specialist. Of course, if you wish to continue your research, you can, but there will be a career change opportunity around the age of 40.

 I worked for one year in 2015 in the planning office of the Biotechnology Area, which is the life science field of AIST. There, I experienced the management side of work, such as deciding the research policy of bioengineering, what direction to develop it, and how to allocate the budget rather than individual research. In this way, by experiencing a completely different type of work, I could enter a new mindset and use it to change and adjust the direction of my research when I returned to my research position. Most of us have experienced this personnel transfer to the management side, and some continue to work there for a long time.

— Do you have a message for graduate students and researchers?

 When I was a student, I was always worried about my career path, and somehow I ended up where I am now, but I think you have to be very worried when you are a student. After all, “you only live once,” so make it a priority to do what you want. Instead, once you set a goal, you need to make an effort to work on it without giving up. It doesn’t have to be a very high hurdle, but do it until you are satisfied. I believe that both success and failure will positively impact your future and your life.

— Are you involved in any outreach activities at AIST or on your own?

 There is an event called “AIST Open House. At this event, we present our research results to the public in an easy-to-understand manner at a booth and hold research presentations for high school students. I have commented on the presentations of high school students and helped advise them on how to proceed with their research. I was surprised to see that high school students these days are doing very advanced research. I think I have a special attachment to education, perhaps because of my background as a graduate of the Faculty of Education.

Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) and Acaric Journal Editorial Board

Profile (at the time of the interview)

Dr. Tetsuya Okuda

Senior Researcher, Bioprocess Research Division, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). Born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1976, Dr. Okuda received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine in 2006, and started to work as a Research Scientist at AIST Shikoku Center in 2006, and a Senior Research Scientist at AIST Hokkaido Center in 2010, before assuming his current position in 2016. He specializes in medical engineering, biochemistry, and glycobiology.

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