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Life of a Scientist — Dr Koji Itahana (Duke - NUS)
An insight to the life of Dr. Koji Itahana as a Research Scientist, Teacher, and Supervisor
Dr. Koji Itahana (Duke - NUS)

I became a scientist because…

I’ve always had a strong interest in science and wanted to be a scientist since I was in junior high school. I was fascinated by the way scientists do research; having their own ‘great’ ideas, coming up with a testable hypothesis and performing experiments hoping that the findings would help to improve human life in the future.

I chose to work in this field because…

The mystery of human body fascinates me. I am always curious to know how our body is amazingly and precisely created and how it works. I am especially interested in the areas of cancer and ageing. I am also curious to study why every creature has different life spans and cancer-suppression mechanisms.

A typical day in the lab is…

I spend most of the time at my office working on new manuscripts and reading scientific journals to gather new ideas that would give direction to my research. This is also where I write grants to secure funding, prepare for classes, discuss the research progress with my lab mates and serve several school committees. I train my lab members with experimental techniques and occasionally conduct experiments to test new ideas.

Outside of the lab, I am also involved in...

I teach basic biology and cancer biology to M.D., MD/Ph.D., and Ph.D. students at Duke-NUS Medical School. I supervise post-doctoral research fellows, one M.D. student, and two Ph.D. students in my lab. I also attend several conferences and meetings to establish collaborations with local and international researchers. Working with experts in different fields brings in new ideas and greatly facilitates the progress of the research.

My lab is currently working on...

My laboratory has been working on elucidating intrinsic mechanisms in the human body that are associated with cancer prevention. Our team has taken several approaches to achieve this goal. One approach is understanding novel diverse functions of the cancer suppressor p53 gene, which is mutated in half of the cancers. We study the regulation of metabolisms that contribute to cancer suppression. We also investigate unique anti-cancer mechanisms that contribute to longevity in mammals with long life spans, including bats. We hope that the findings from our studies would help to develop new strategies and drugs to treat and prevent cancer.

The biggest challenge in my job is…

Scientific projects usually take three to five years to get published in well-known journals these days. Translating basic research findings to clinical applications might take another 10-15 years or more. Many independent scientists only have 20-30 active years before retirement, which may not be enough to significantly contribute to science and human health. Therefore, I need to use my time wisely and efficiently, prioritize the projects, and be brave enough to terminate some of them to achieve my research goals.

The biggest misconception about scientists is probably…

That they always see success in their research, which is not true. Experiments and working hypotheses can often go wrong. In those disappointing moments, we need to be patient and keep working hard to build new working hypotheses based on the failed experiments. Although it occurs only occasionally, the exciting moments when we confirm the accuracy of our hypothesis and discover new findings motivate us to work hard and keep moving forward.

My latest publication talks about…

We recently published a paper showing that bat cells accumulate fewer toxic chemicals than human cells by removing these substances out of their cells. The underlying mechanism is the cell surface pump protein, ABCB1, which is highly abundant and broadly distributed in bat tissues, whereas it is expressed in limited organs in humans. The protein prevents prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals, thereby protecting the DNA of bats from becoming damaged and mutated. We hypothesized that this mechanism contributes to prevent cancer development in bats.

Koh J, Itahana Y, Mendenhall IH, Low D, Soh EXY, Guo AK, Chionh YT, Wang LF, Itahana K. ABCB1 protects bat cells from DNA damage induced by genotoxic compounds. Nat. Commun. 2019 June 10(1):2820

In my free time, I enjoy…

I like to play tennis, travel, and reading scientific journals.

A book I will recommend everybody to read is…

“Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition”, Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

I enjoy my job because…

Being a scientist gives me the privilege to work on exciting research projects, which might eventually help to improve human health. It also gives me immense satisfaction when I see my publications being cited and helping other scientists to progress in their fields of research. I also enjoy teaching and discussing science with many young talented MD and Ph.D. students in our school and getting feedback from them.

Dr. Koji Itahana obtained his B.S. degree in Science and Ph.D. degree in Biophysics at the Faculty of Science, Kyoto University in Japan. He subsequently received postdoctoral training at the laboratory of Dr. Judith Campisi, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to study the role of p53 in cellular senescence, and the laboratory of Dr. Yanping Zhang, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study the role of ARF-Mdm2-p53 pathway in cancer suppression. He started his own laboratory at Duke-NUS Medical School in October 2009. He is currently an Associate Professor at the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme, Duke-NUS Medical School.


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APBN Editorial Calendar 2019
Taiwan Medical tourism
Marijuana as medicine — Legal marijuana will open up scientific research
Driven by curiosity
Career developments for researchers
What's cracking — Antibodies in ostrich eggs
Clinical trials — What's in a name?
Traditional Chinese medicine in modern healthcare — Integrating both worlds
Digitalization vs Digitization — Exploring Emerging Trends in Healthcare
Healthy Ageing — How Science is chipping in
Disruptive Urban Farming — Microbes, Plasmids, and Recycling
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