"I would like to cure cancer"
Renowned cancer researcher comes to UChicago with lofty goals
By landing renowned Japanese cancer researcher Yusuke Nakamura, the University of Chicago Medicine magnifies its potential for making scientific discoveries that lead to the development of lifesaving drugs.
Widely known for his contributions to modern genomics, the 59-year-old Nakamura, MD, PhD, held a cabinet-level position as Secretary General of the Office of Medical Innovation in Japan. His recruitment is being hailed as a coup for the University, as well as a boon for bio-tech prospects in Chicago and throughout the nation.
In an interview in his new office at the Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery, Nakamura has a tone of modesty but fierce determination. He sets a very high bar.
"I would like to cure cancer," he says. "Some people respond to medicines while others do not. Why? I want to find out."
A native of Osaka and the son of shopkeepers, Nakamura worked as a surgeon early in his career. He is still moved as he describes a case from more than 30 years ago, the suffering of a 27-year-old woman dying of cancer.
"She pulled at my coat and cried in pain," he says softly. "I can still remember her crying."
When his mother, Takako, died of colon cancer at age 64 in 1999, Nakamura vowed to focus on exploring science in the quest to identify the disease in people at much earlier stages.
Nakamura, the author of nearly 1,200 research papers, was a professor of molecular medicine at Tokyo University's Human Genome Center. He earned his PhD in molecular genetics from Osaka University. In the 1980s, he spent five years at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Utah, working as a research fellow and later as a faculty member. He returned to Japan in 1989 and later founded a biotech company, OncoTherapy Science.
In accepting the offer to join the University of Chicago, Nakamura says he saw great promise here in turning discoveries into practical treatments. In particular, he points to the University's Center for Personalized Therapeutics, which hews treatments to individual genetic makeup. The director of the center, Mark Ratain, MD, the Leon O. Jacobson Professor of Medicine, who has collaborated with Nakamura on earlier major research projects, played a key role in the recruitment.
Nakamura believes his specialties in genotype and discovery will complement Ratain's specialties in phenotype and development to produce major advances in the care and treatment of patients.
The move to Chicago was triggered by the terrible Japanese earthquake, a tragedy that he says necessarily diverted government attention from most other matters, including his research mission as Secretary General of the Office of Medical Innovation.
Nakamura says he is buoyed by his new prospects, in part, because bringing new drugs to market is a much more efficient process in the United States than in Japan. The key to earlier diagnoses and pharmacological advances, he says, lies in unlocking the puzzles of genetics, which can help serve as a roadmap for the production of new drugs, as well as modifications of clinical treatments.
In Chicago, Nakamura will be joined in the coming months by eight or nine postdoctoral researchers now working in Japan. As it happens, he notes, only one of these researchers is a Japanese citizen; the others grew up in Malaysia, Korea, Sudan and Singapore, among other places.
Nakamura has settled into an apartment in downtown Chicago with his wife and young son. He says he has admired the city for a long time. "Great architecture and good restaurants."
With a reputation as a good cook himself, Nakamura joked that "the hand of a surgeon" can be useful in working around the stove. He is an avid fan of baseball, a big sport in Japan. He says he has already been told by some Chicagoans that he will have to choose a loyalty between the Cubs and the White Sox. Already accustomed to the lay of the land on the South Side, he says he is leaning toward the Sox.
This story originally ran in the Summer 2012 issue of Medicine on the Midway, a publication for friends, alumni and faculty of the University of Chicago Medicine, the University of Chicago Division of Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine.
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