Table Speech

Creating the Next-Generation Japan --- Cutting-edge Biotechnology and Novel Educational System---

February 06, 2013

Mr. Masaru Tomita
Director and Professor
Institute for Advanced Biosciences / Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University

 The Institute for Advanced Biosciences is based in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. It is the first campus of Keio University established outside the Kanto region in its history of 150 years. I was appointed the first Director General in 2000 at the age of 42. I have devoted my efforts towards the success of this Institute, which I believe will bring change to Japan. Let me enumerate the following three points:

1) A truly creative and original research cannot be done in urban areas.
2) Creating “intellectual industry” is the key to revitalize local communities.
3) Educational system in Japan aims to foster only “model students”, which has brought about current stagnation.

  Let me introduce the three creative research projects undertaken by our Institute, so original that special TV programs were produced and broadcasted.
(※Images from the TV programs were shown along with the table speech.)
“Cancer” diagnosis by salivary analysis

 The world’s most advanced “metabolome analysis” technique developed by our Institute succeeded in identifying several hundreds of substances in the saliva by just one measurement. We have detected five substances with striking quantity differences between cancer patients and healthy individuals. We can detect cancers by measuring these substances, with the probability of 99% for pancreas cancer, 95% for breast cancer and 80% for oral cancer. We hope to lead the world by putting salivary analysis into practical use

 Research on oil-producing algae --- Next-generation bio-fuels
 Since 2008, our Institute has pursued a joint research project with a major auto manufacturer to clarify the mechanism of the oil-producing alga “pseudochoricystis ellipsoidea.” This single-celled alga can produce light oil by absorbing carbon dioxide, as long as there are water and light. It is attracting world attention as a next-generation bio-fuel, with superior energy efficiency worth ten to twenty times of sugar canes and maize.

 Artificially-synthesized spider silk --- Towards practical use of next-generation bio-based material
Spider silk is called a dream fiber, as it is strong, light, thermally-resistant, stretchy, oil-independent and biodegradable. We succeeded in the artificial synthesis of such spider silk, by analyzing the spider genes and identifying the gene that produces silk. Two undergraduate students at Keio University, Mr. Sekiyama and Mr. Sugawara, embarked on the research and development, which seemed to be a reckless challenge then. After five years, they did succeed in artificially synthesizing spider silk. They founded the bio-venture “Spiber Inc.” and became the “men of the times” with the awards of prestigious prizes from ministries and research institutes.

 The new material “artificial spider silk” is very near practical use. Its light, strong, stretchy and eco-friendly nature is ideal to be used as reinforcement material for automobile and aircraft body and parts. We are planning to establish a plant in Tsuruoka City jointly with various manufacturers conducting research and development.

 There is not a single listed company in Tsuruoka City. If this company gets listed, it will be the first and only such company. I believe we can revitalize local communities not by inviting companies but by starting up intellectual industry from zero. We must not forget that manufacturers like Honda, Sony or Matsushita that brought prosperity to Japan in the post-war times had been all ventures starting from zero.

 Now, let me share with you my philosophy on education, together with some concrete examples from last year.

 High school students appointed as research assistants
We established the “high school student research assistant program” two years ago. Twelve students from Tsuruoka Chuo High School, located right next to our Institute, were appointed this year. Students work after school on weekdays, together with our researchers. This is a unique initiative in the world and I hope young students gain valuable experience by working at our labs, the forefront of advanced science.

 Accepting high school students aspiring to become Nobel Prize winning scientists

  Our Institute also accepts a dozen of high school students with an aspiration to become world-class researchers as special research scholars. They engage themselves in original research projects, with assistance from students at Keio University who practice the “half learning, half teaching” philosophy advocated by Yukichi Fukuzawa, the founder of Keio University. I strongly believe providing opportunities for young students to devote themselves to research will enable them to forge the future of Japan.

 Bio Summit in Tsuruoka

 Our Institute organizes the 2-day-“Bio Summit” every August for high school students, jointly with Tsuruoka City. About 150 high school students throughout Japan gather to make presentations on their research projects and receive relentless questions from the judges. Superior groups are selected as finalists of the contest on the second day. I am sure students who understand that research is not just difficult but rather enjoyable will get motivated to become world-class scientists.

As I mentioned earlier, creative and original ideas are generated when we get relaxed in rich and refreshing natural environment. For this reason, it makes no sense to me that universities and research institutes are located only in the metropolitan areas in Japan. It exemplifies the Japanese mentality of feeling secure by gathering together in groups and feeling uneasy if deviated from the center (Tokyo). The world’s leading academic and research facilities are mostly located in the countryside. This is why I want to change the Japanese education and science by producing many world-class research results and disseminating them from Tsuruoka.

  We must foster and assist the highly motivated younger generation, who are ready to base their thinking and actions on a long-term perspective. This is because “human” resource is all we have in our country.