6 January 2022
A culture that has produced Nobel laureates
The history of the study of medicine at Kyoto University began with the opening of its College of Medicine in 1899. Kyoto University currently has one of the largest medical programs in Japan, with two major courses in the School of Medicine and five in the Graduate School of Medicine.
It has also produced many world-class researchers who have left their mark on history. These include Professor Akira Fujinami, who was a pioneer in the discovery of cancer caused by viruses; Professor Kozo Okamoto, who developed spontaneously hypertensive rats; Professor Osamu Hayaishi, who was the first in the world to discover oxygenases; and Professor Shosaku Numa, who was the first in the world to determine the primary structure of ion channels. In recent years, it has produced two Nobel laureates: Professor Shinya Yamanaka, who created the world's first mouse iPS cells, and Distinguished Professor Tasuku Honjo, who discovered PD-1, a target protein for cancer therapy.
Professor Kazuhiro Iwai, joint Dean of the Graduate School of Medicine and Faculty of Medicine, remarked on the research culture that made these achievements possible. “My mentors often told me, ‘A true researcher should work to understand the basic nature of a subject rather than applying what is already known.’ I think this perspective makes you inclined to do things differently than others and work toward uncovering basic principles,” he said.
Professor Tadashi Isa, Vice Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Biology (ASHBi), noted that Kyoto University has “an atmosphere that encourages researchers to pursue topics that are fun and personally interesting to them.” Professor Mitinori Saitou, Director of ASHBi, said that this environment of freedom and non-interference is a great tradition.
Dean Kazuhiro Iwai
This culture is also evident in clinical practice. Hiroshi Seno, a professor of gastroenterology and hepatology in the Graduate School of Medicine who conducts cutting-edge research to identify cancer mechanisms, suggests that these research inclinations arise because “When researchers can freely study their respective areas of interest without pressure to conform, both clinical practice and research will progress.” Kenji Kabashima, a professor of dermatology in the Graduate School of Medicine, is translating results of basic research into development of first-class therapeutics. He joked that, “Every researcher at Kyoto University thinks of themself as the greatest,” and said that the university has a fair view of science that creates an environment where colleagues can discuss things without having to speculate about what the other person is thinking.
Professor Hiroshi Seno
Educational programs that foster a research mindset
The university quickly launched bold graduate school reforms, as it focused its efforts on fostering professionals capable of responding to major changes in the medical and healthcare fields, while still preserving a free research culture that respects individual differences. In 2000, a Medical Science major course was added to the Graduate School of Medicine, which previously only offered a major in Medicine. This created a path to becoming a medical science researcher for students knowledgeable in a wide range of natural science fields other than medicine, such as science and engineering. The School of Public Health was also established as the first graduate school of public health in Japan, and promotes education and research across a wide range of fields, including epidemiology and medical statistics, disease prevention and health promotion, and evaluation of healthcare quality and economics.
Another noteworthy program is the MD Researcher Course, which fosters students’ interest in and insight into research. During the early years of the program, students rotate between laboratories to get exposure to different fields of research, and can then decide which laboratory they will join and conduct research at that laboratory. Another program that was established is “My Course,” which allows students to conduct independent research at another university or medical institution, or an overseas university or research institute, for a period of about three months. The MD-PhD (Medical Scientist Training) Course supports students in balancing their research interests and career.
Kazuhiro Iwai, joint Dean of the Graduate School of Medicine and Faculty of Medicine, has strived to reform the educational program in ways that will help faculty pass on to their young students the mindset that the purpose of their research is to continue the quest of pursuing a subject's essential nature. “Seeking to understand the essential nature of a subject is the only way we can discover the basic principles involved in the mechanisms that govern the human body and disease. Medicine will never truly progress unless we continue to discover new basic principles,” said Dean Iwai, conveying the significance to him of carrying on the mission and traditions of Kyoto University's medical programs.
Learn and shape the cutting edge of medicine with an interdisciplinary approach
The Medicine major in the Graduate School of Medicine began offering Graduate Courses of Integrated Research Training jointly led by instructors from multiple laboratories in 2005. This addition was made in response to the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of medicine and the growing demand to analyze research using advanced experimental techniques that transcend areas of specialty. Students can systematically and intensively obtain a wide range of knowledge about the latest developments in medicine by cutting across the areas of basic medicine, clinical medicine, and social medicine through exploration of themes such as cancer, neurology, immunology, regenerative medicine, clinical research, and medical informatics engineering.
In 2017, the Department of Human Health Sciences established the Multidisciplinary Medical Sciences course to train experts in areas such as genetic analysis, imaging analysis, big data analysis, and clinical research and development management, who are essential to advanced medicine and medical research. The Graduate Courses of Integrated Research Training also added a human health course in 2021.
Interdisciplinary efforts are also blossoming in the area of research. The goal of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Biology (ASHBi), which was launched in October 2018 with funding from the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI) Program of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), is to leverage interdisciplinary methodologies to create a new research field that will elucidate the mechanisms by which human characteristics are acquired and explore the principles by which disruption of these characteristics results in pathological states.
ASHBi Director Mitinori Saitou, who is internationally accomplished in cutting-edge research on germ cells, said, “Solving ethical issues is extremely important for furthering advanced research in medicine and biology, especially human biology. Through discussions with ethics scholars, we deepen discourse on the meaning of our research, its future prospects, and how it should be used in society. We will also promote collaboration with various fields including engineering and physics around themes such as analysis and understanding of vast amounts of genomic information.”
Professor Mitinori Saitou
Professor Tadashi Isa, a neuroscientist who serves as Director of the Human Brain Research Center in the Graduate School of Medicine and Vice Director of ASHBi, said that brain research is “no longer something you can do alone.” He emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary research, saying, “We also need the help of informatics specialists to simulate the brain's processes for information-processing and understand how the brain processes information. Scientists specializing in optogenetics, a new field that fuses optics development and molecular biology, have been essential for recent neuroscientific experiments.” He also feels that being able to conduct research in close collaboration with clinical departments such as psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery is a great advantage of being at Kyoto University.
Professor Tadashi Isa
Tackling “open innovation in drug discovery”
From a relatively early stage, Kyoto University has worked with industry partners to return the results of basic research to greater society in the form of new medical treatments. The Kyoto University Medical Science and Business Liaison Organization (KUMBL), which was established in 2002, promotes collaborative research projects that match promising basic and clinical research projects with market demands.
Among these, the Strategic Alliance projects a unique example of an equal partnership between a university and industry involving collaboration across a wide range of areas including research, education, and professional training. Kyoto University is collaborating with major pharmaceutical companies on projects that address unmet medical needs, that is, areas where effective treatments do not exist, such as discovery of central nervous system depressants and cancer drugs, and treatment of chronic kidney disease and psychiatric disorders.
Prof. Kabashima, who has been creating first-class drugs in partnership with industry, said, “Industry researchers offer a perspective that we lack. They also have the most complete libraries of compounds that could become new drug candidates,” noting the importance of collaborative research with industry.
Professor Kenji Kabashima
Kyoto University has also made efforts to expand the support system for clinical research in order to improve the quality of research. The Institute for Advancement of Clinical and Translational Science (iACT), which was established in 2020, has a system for providing specialized support in the discovery and management of drug candidates, intellectual property management, and management and coordination of clinical trials. Its services include support for collaboration with industry and obtaining research funding, which are important factors for advancing clinical and basic research.
Comprehensive research support including high-level analytical technology
A new educational program at Kyoto University that leverages this research-focused environment is the Graduate Program for Medical Innovation, which was selected for the WISE Program of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2019. In addition to changing the university's internal organization by adding ASHBi to the Graduate School of Medicine, Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University aims to become an educational center for advanced industry-academia collaboration across the entire R&D lifespan from basic research to social implementation of results, in collaboration with domestic and international research institutions and private companies.
Professor Kazuhiro Iwai, joint Dean of the Graduate School of Medicine and Faculty of Medicine, made the following remarks. “Research is not something one person can do alone. It will become increasingly important to create an environment, in the broadest sense, in which curiosity and outstanding ideas can transform into research results capable of changing the world. We hope to create a positive feedback loop where outstanding researchers gather at Kyoto University due to its outstanding research environment, and share their outstanding achievements with the world, further enhancing the university's appeal.”
Going forward, the fields of medicine and healthcare will be predominantly driven by open innovation, where researchers, experts, and practitioners from various areas all work to advance the field as a whole. As research becomes more sophisticated, imaging analysis, genetic analysis, and analysis of big datasets such as patient information will become essential. Kyoto University's medical programs will ensure that such advanced analytical technology is always available on campus as part of their effort to provide comprehensive support for research.
- A great depth of globally recognized achievements, including Nobel Prize wins
- Passing on a culture of feeling free to be different
- Making improvements to the work environment to support research, including introduction of state-of-the-art analytical technology
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