Center Director: 2021 New Year's Message
January 28, 2021 NEWS
Center Director Kazuhiko Yamamoto, who was appointed Center Director
from April 2020, talked about how IMS went through a difficult time in
2020 and our future plan for 2021.
Looking back, how would you describe how year 2020 went for IMS?
The negative impact of the COVID-19 became visible from around March, and the worst of it coming after the declaration of state of emergency in April which made us stop all the experimental (wet) research with the exception of COVID-19 related research. Unfortunately, even now in 2021, the negative impact has not been completely resolved. Part of the informatics based research (dry) could be continued remotely, but I think stopping all the wet activities made a big impact to dry research as well.
The restrictions of the on-site activity (working) level have been gradually reduced since the end of May, however mutual communication was insufficient due to the social distance plan in order to avoid crowding in the laboratory. Thus, the lack of communication also influenced the research. The meetings were mostly held on-line, which had its advantages, but the element of exchanging information face-to-face was significantly hampered.
In addition, we could not implement satisfactory education for new employees. Also, the negative impact on graduate students who had to complete the thesis within the period was definitely not small. On top of all, as of December 2020, more than 100 foreigners who have had plans to study at RIKEN are still hold up in their home countries due to immigration restrictions waiting for a permission to enter the country.
Many domestic and international conferences have been canceled, postponed, such as an international symposium co-sponsored by IMS and the Japanese Society of Immunology, an international summer school jointly with Tsinghua University. It was a such pity that all of the joint symposiums lost a valuable chance for face-face communication.
What was the first thing you did or thought you should do as the new director (starting from FY2020)?
The current IMS is basically the integration of immunology field (research conducted at the north building), the genomics field (the east building research), and the gene expression (transcriptome) field (the west building research) which started in 2018. The laboratories in each building operated very differently. This made a big impact on budget allocation. One big task is to make the budgeting as even and fair as possible and I am making progress step by step, following in the former director's footsteps.
On the other hand, with integration and collaboration between those areas there are more opportunities to create "new science", which I am actively encouraging. To give an example, we started conducting research that will lead to the elucidation of immune cell function by analyzing the genome and gene expression in human immune cells. I also want to accelerate mutual understanding/collaborative works of experimental (wet) and informatics based (dry) research. To enhance mutual understanding between the research sides, even more than before, we actively promote the online IMS seminars. One of the advantages of holding online seminars is having more opportunities to have presentations by overseas researchers who until could only participate if the timing allowed them to come to Japan. Even taking into account the time difference, it is easier for us to invite overseas researchers to our seminars.
Please tell us what kind of research does IMS do on COVID 19 (an overview).
Basically, we tried to expand the existing research currently in progress, by making COVID-19 an extension of the projects, rather than creating another new project just for COVID-19. As a result, more than 10 COVID-19 related projects are in under way. In addition, we are improving the BSL-3 level facilities not only to handle the current SARS-CoV-2 virus, but also to be used as part of future infection diseases measure such as influenza etc. as a way of preparing in order to preparing for measures against infectious diseases including influenza as well as COVID-19 in the future.
Please tell us if there are any symposiums or events that you think were impressive and important for IMS in 2020.
In 2020, we held two on-line symposiums one in co-organized with Stanford University in the United States, and another with Karolinska Institute/SciLifeLab in Sweden. I can say that both symposiums gave opportunity for young researchers, mainly in the areas of development / differentiation and artificial intelligence to present their work. We are also planning to hold a symposium with McGill University in Canada in the fields of genetic analysis and immunology, and with the University of Luxembourg in the field of systems biology by AAthe end of this March. However, despite the usefulness of online events, I also reaffirmed the importance of having on-site events which enable more of direct face-to-face communication.
A bit of a digression, but we held "on-line year-end party", because we wanted to boost the sense of unity as IMS. Thanks to the efforts of some volunteer organizers, many of our members have actively participated and it made for a fun experience.
168 papers were published by IMS in 2020, of which 42 were press-released. Please tell us if there is any paper that left a strong impression on IMS.
The relationship between gut bacteria and immunity is one of the major areas where IMS is leading the world. In this study, Dr. Ohno's team found that bacteria that induce Th17 cells, which are related to inflammation, and bacteria that induce antigen-specific T cell proliferation may work synergistically to activate antigen-specific T cells in the central nervous system.
We believe this is a major step forward in the field of biomedical science.
Related links: Jump to RIKEN website
Tag team gut bacteria worsen symptoms of multiple sclerosis
What kind of year do you want to make 2021 as the director of the center?
Also, how do you think IMS should proceed?
I would like to create a mechanism/system to become a more advanced research center based on the valuable experience of 2020, rather than simply returning to "how things were before COVID-19". Specifically, I would like to further 1) promote "crosstalk" between experimental research (wet) and informatics based research (dry), and 2) promote research using human derived samples, not only model animals.
Despite the differences in the initial number of infected people between Europe/US and Japan, major research centers in Europe and the United States have mobilized all available methodologies that can be used now to analyze peripheral blood lymphocytes of SARS-CoV2-infected patients. They have published their result to major papers such as Cell, Science and Nature. Japan Immunology field is one of the world leaders but most of research has been done on mice models. Research on mice-model is of course important, but we believe that it is urgent to train more researchers who will directly study the immune pathology in humans. And I think that it should be done by our own methodology, not just by following-up on methods developed in Europe and the United States.
As Center Director, what kind of role IMS should act in near future?
Unfortunately, both social circumstances and research environment aspect in our country, do not provide a progressive and on-ward research environment attractive to young people. However, as one of RIKEN's life science centers, I would like IMS to play a unique role as a hub for intellectual exchange among young researchers around the world. I hope that by having multiple cutting-edge research fields, IMS will become a gathering place for young researchers from Japan and abroad.
Thank you for taking the time to interview.