Graduate School of Medicine, Immunology Laboratory

Developing new therapies for intractable diseases through immunological research

Graduate School of Medicine, Immunology Laboratory

-Advanced research category, highly functional therapeutics research-

The human immune system is closely related to such intractable diseases as cancer and diabetes in addition to allergies.
We interviewed Professor Toshinori Nakayama whose research is aiming at finding new therapies by unravelling the mechanism of the immune system.

Toshinori Nakayama

Professor of Immunology, Graduate School of Medicine of Chiba University.

raduated from Faculty of Medicine of Yamaguchi University and Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Tokyo.
Began working at Chiba University in 2001, and serving in current position since 2004.
Program Leader of Medicine Global COE.
Appointed as Vice-President (future medicine) of Chiba University in July 2014, and Director of Future Medicine Education and Research Organization. Specializing in immunology.

Please tell us the research you are working on currently.

My laboratory is promoting a study of unravelling the immune system in pursuit for new medicine.
The immunity is a mechanism of eliminating "what is foreign" that has penetrated into the body, but excessive reactions can cause allergies. Typical examples are pollen or food allergies, but in recent years, the immune system has been increasingly connected to intractable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and rheumatism.
The immune system was thought to react to all kinds of things, but my laboratory successfully clarified that a protein called "EZH2" suppresses reactions to certain substances. This major achievement may be able to contribute to developing medication for suppressing allergies and auto-immunity disease.
"Immunological memory" is another core of my research. Simply put, the human body remembers the diseases that it experienced before and produces antibodies.
One application of this function is vaccine. The cells responsible for the memory, however, can trigger chronic inflammation and induce diseases.
My research is proposing a theory that pinpointing and removing these cells causing inflammation can lead to curing intractable diseases. I submitted the research results as a paper this year.

What made you determine to pursue research on immunology?

I grew up in countryside in Okayama surrounded by different forms of life, so I became more interested in biological science than other scientific subjects like physics or mathematics, and later I decided to take up medicine.
I came across immunology when I heard a lecture at my university which really attracted me to the world of immunology.
The lecturer was Professor Tomio Tada who had a lab in the University of Tokyo. After graduating from the faculty of medicine, I immediately entered the Graduate School of Medicine of the University of Tokyo and studied under Professor Tada.
The study of immune system is a matured research field today, but it was still an unknown subject during my university days.
In other words, I took an interest in it because it was in the process of development with more and more new findings, and that's another reason why I chose immunology.

Chiba University has launched "Future Medicine Education and Research Organization." Please tell us about this organization.

Chiba University is working on cultivation of next-generation, capable medical staff who can fully perform their skills in various medical scenes as well as creation of a "therapeutic research" base by combining the capabilities of the three medical departments (medical, pharmaceutical and nursing sciences) on Inohana Campus as well as Chiba University Hospital.
In 2013, "Inohana Campus Higher Functionalizing Plan" was selected as a Japanese government MEXT Program for Promoting the Reform of National Universities, and Future Medicine Education and Research Organization was established as an institution that realizes that project's goal.
I am currently serving as the director of this Organization. I would like to utilize the advantages that Chiba University has to develop medical human resources who are capable of supporting the forthcoming super-aged society in Japan.

Last of all, please give a message to the students.

I recommend that all students try to do what they should to the best of their abilities.
We don't really know our own potential.
After understanding our own limitations, we begin to see what we are suited for and which way we should be going.
Aging surely diminishes our physical strength, so my advice is to "do as much as you can while you are still young."

Future Medicine Education and Research Organization plays a central role for the comprehensive development of medical staff who can support rich and healthy aged society as well as safe and secure community that Chiba University is promoting.

Professor Nakayama proposed the theory that allergies or auto-immunity diseases are triggered by the expression of virulent cells in a group of memory helper T cells (as shown in the lower figure) against the conventional idea that such diseases are caused by the balance in the number of helper T cells which are in a sense commanders of immune mechanism (the upper figure).
In case the Professor's theory is proven, the symptoms may be improved by removing only those cells that cause the diseases.
His theory is gathering attention as indicated by over 1,000 views and downloads of the thesis in two months after it was posted for public in February this year .