An Institute is in The World Spotlight

Unlike many
other countries, the knowledge industry in Japan is densely based in the
metropolitan area. Meanwhile, there is a research institute attracting
worldwide attention in the field of IT and biotechnology despite its
geographical disadvantage; being located 500 km away from Tokyo.

The Institute
for Advanced Biosciences (IAB) of Keio University locates itself in Tsuruoka,
Yamagata Prefecture in Tohoku. In Tsuruoka, you can enjoy beautiful nature and
tradition in the Shonai Plain, a large field that is famous for rice
production. The IAB and various relevant facilities stand in the field. This
group of facilities is known as the Science Park. The cooperation of Tsuruoka
City such as provision of a room and maintenance of the facilities allowed the
venture companies originated from the IAB to perform advanced experiment. One
of them, Spiber, has succeeded in realizing a mass production of artificial
spider’s thread for the first time in the world. It widens the variety of
thread’s texture and is expected to replace petroleum goods.

Dr. Tomita (leftmost) and Mitacam crew at an entrance of the IAB ( August 8th, 2018)

 While traditional research method calls for
researchers to set up a hypothesis before examining the results, the IAB
undertakes research in the opposite way; they establish theories after
analyzing data. A good example of the institute’s success is its leading edge
research on Metabolomic analysis. It is expected that the technology will allow
us to identify the specific substances that cause diseases such as cancer or
depression through analyzing a vast amount of Metabolome data of one’s cells
and comparing them with that of healthy individuals. The institute aims to
develop high-throughput comprehensive analysis to seek out the initial symptoms
of cancer, which if utilized, will be exceedingly simplified and less stressful
on a patient’s body compared to current methods of examination. The method will
be not only for medicine and health but also applied in the fields more close
to daily life such as for environmental and food production. This has not been
realized yet but in the near future, we will be surrounded by this technology.

However, why does this innovative research
keep stemming from the provincial town? Masaru Tomita, who is the
director-general of the institute, states, “When starting something, you have
to do from zero.” This laboratory marked its 18th anniversary in 2018, but he
says that there used to be a lot of difficulties in the beginning when he was
assigned to the position. Until now, he faced serious arguments against
carrying out the new-fashioned research in rural area. However, Dr. Tomita
claims that new ideas – especially in the field of science –  are likely to be found in a place full of
nature. “The important thing is to look ahead to the further side and create,
not to use the existing knowledge or methods.” It is an ongoing attempt to
renovate the image of the province into that of an attractive one for younger
generations.

 Dr.
Tomita also attaches great importance to forming an alliance with the local
community. For example, the research institute welcomes the people who want to
visit there, and the local high school students are employed as student
research assistants and engage in the research almost every day. Recently, the
institute started promoting the cooperation of
high schools and universities. The professional researchers help the research
activity of high school students with careful guidance. Some revolutionary
research results are released from the research activity of the institute as a
whole. Thus, a cycle is created where those who used to be employed as a
student assistant or student intern becomes a member of the institute, and in
return, they themselves help the research of high school students. Thanks to
many attempts, the institute has become the pride of Tsuruoka City.

 “If
you can make a concerted effort, whatever it is, you can offer a delightful
surprise to people.” When he was an undergraduate student, fascinated by the
potential of programming, Dr. Tomita created the world’s first software program
which made it possible to write Chinese characters on personal computers. His
words show his stance to welcome adventurous and innovative ideas. The motto of
the institute, “Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Just keep going.”, might be
the reason why it attracts attention globally.

Written by              Masaki Sako

                                Yusuke Kazamaki

Edited by                Takeru Suzuki