April 13, 2024

Innovating genome editing technology

Genomes are the blueprints for living creatures; Chromosomes and genes within all of our cells encode information about life. Genome editing technology that can alter these chromosomes and genes has developed rapidly. From the development of medicines and gene therapy, to improvements in crops and livestock, to the creation of useful microorganisms to replace oil, this technology has begun to have a significant impact on our societies.

Professor NISHIDA Keiji (Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation) has developed a new genome editing technology and established a commercial venture based on the results of his research. He is on the front lines of genome editing in both business and research.

Choosing the road less traveled

Nishida: After 5 years working on my research in the United States, I returned to Japan and realized that my home country was behind in genome editing technology. Many people are involved in research using genome editing technology, but few people are researching genome editing itself. Genome editing is a tool that can impact all fields related to living beings. I also chose this line of research because I could see it potentially complementing other research at Kobe University.

Originally from Kobe, he obtained his doctorate researching evolution at the molecular level at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Science, Department of Biological Sciences. For 5 years, starting in 2008, he continued his research at Harvard Medical School, in the United States.

Nishida: Research on evolution looks at the composition of organisms in the past. Many areas of this field have already been extensively covered by other researchers, so I had to specialize even more. I decided it would be a good idea to look for a different field of study and changed my research focus to synthetic biology, a growing discipline in the United States. Synthetic biology can be described as the process of imitating evolution – creating living organisms. In the US, I worked on research that involved adding a mechanism to yeast cells that responds to magnetic fields. Manipulating genes effectively was a vital part of this, and I experienced a complex and frustrating process. All paths led to genome editing research.

The advances

In 2013 he returned to Japan and took up his current position at Kobe University. He works with Professor KONDO Akihiko, Dean of the Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation, who is currently leading a research project at Innovative Bioproduction Kobe.

Nishida: I also had the option of remaining at Harvard or returning to the University of Tokyo, but I decided that Professor Kondo Akihiko’s research team could provide me with the best environment to pursue my interests. When I started at Kobe University I hadn’t decided on my research topic, so I chose to research the development of genome editing technology because it was a field that could complement many of Professor Kondo’s areas of research.

A year before he returned to Japan, the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 was developed.

Nishida: I was very impressed with the progress of the research. Ideally, CRISPR/Cas9 cuts the DNA at the target point, and the DNA repairs itself into a new, altered form, but the change does not always go as planned, and sometimes the target cell dies from cytotoxicity. My goal was to create a genome editing technology that does not cleave DNA, so I developed a new genome editing technology called “Target-AID” that uses a deaminase enzyme. I had been interested in deaminases since my time in the United States.

In total, it took more than two years from starting research to publishing a paper, but I established the technology over 3 or 4 months of experiments after coming up with the concept. It is comparatively easy to make advances in unexamined fields of inquiry, so I think it is important for researchers to challenge themselves by choosing newer fields of inquiry.

From research results to patents

On August 5, 2016, his article was published in the online edition of Science and publicized by various media outlets in Japan. In April of the same year, the Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation at Kobe University was opened . This Graduate School covers education and research in areas ranging from natural sciences to areas of business administration such as intellectual property rights and finance, with the aim of commercializing research results.

This interdisciplinary approach came to fruition in February 2017, when Professor Nishida established a commercial venture based on his research. His new biotechnology company is called “Bio Palette Co., Ltd.”

Nishida: When you disseminate your research results to society, I think that in addition to publishing an article, it is also important to demonstrate its usefulness in a way that is easy to understand, such as through a company. Since my stay in the United States, I have been thinking about commercializing the results of my research, so the creation of the Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation was the perfect moment for me. I don’t think I could have started a venture in such a short time at another university.

Why does it have to be international

In the United States, commercial genome editing ventures are receiving huge amounts of investment and, at the same time, disputes over patent rights are increasing. You need to be quick to raise funds and create a strategy for intellectual property rights. In May 2017, Professor Nishida received approximately 400 million yen (about 3.7 million US dollars) in investment funds from a large fund based in Boston, USA.

Nishida: For better or worse, our technology cannot stop at Japan’s borders. We must see the foreign market as our main battlefield. We must understand the current global conditions for patents and intellectual property strategy, and negotiations are necessary, including alliances with foreign universities and commercial ventures. By working with a strong background in the main US arena, I want to create a business structure that can develop globally.

Genome editing technology can potentially be applied to many different fields, including medicine, agriculture and microorganisms. At Bio Palette Co., Ltd we have started to build the business and are choosing our goals. I think university professors are in a great position to work in commercial ventures. I hope to continue contributing to society through research and business.


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