AMED-funded projects

FEATURE

Aligning the young stars in science

Interdisciplinary projects among young researchers are critical for solving the next big challenges in medicine. AMED’s Interstellar Initiative provides a unique platform for the world’s most promising early-career investigators to connect and collaborate.

A colored scanning electron micrograph of hematopoietic stem cells. Sajid Nisar and his team used artificial bone-marrow models to investigate the connection between hematopoietic stem cells and aging.

© SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

As the world’s most critical medical challenges become more complex, there is an increasing need to draw on interdisciplinary knowledge to devise solutions. The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) catalyzes engagement across various fields through the Interstellar Initiative, which brings early career investigators together to formulate research ideas that tackle critical challenges in medicine.

Aiming for the stars

Jointly hosted with the New York Academy of Sciences, the Interstellar Initiative creates ‘dream teams’ of three by bringing together early career researchers in the fields of life science, clinical research, physical science, technology, and allied health. Each year, participants selected through a competitive application process take part in a two-part workshop to develop research proposals that address major research questions in medicine, with the ultimate goal of submitting proposals to well-known funding agencies such as the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. The teams are guided by leading researchers in their respective fields. As of summer 2021, 170 young researchers from 17 countries have participated in the program since its launch in 2017.

Exploring aging in artificial bone-marrow models

Each year, the team that comes up with the most compelling research proposal receives an award. Sajid Nisar of the Kyoto University of Advanced Science and his team won the award in 2019.

Specializing in robotics, Nisar designs robots that have intelligent hardware and not just intelligent software. “Many robots are ‘intelligent’ because of their software. Software algorithms, however, are prone to bugs,” explains Nisar. “In contrast, building intelligence into the hardware makes robots more fail-proof. It’s a more challenging approach, but a critical one in medicine, where failures can cost lives.”

Nisar’s team proposed exploring the link between hematopoietic stem cells — multipotent cells in the bone marrow that give rise to all kinds of mature blood cells — and aging. Specifically, they looked at how aging occurs when hematopoietic stem cells lose their ability to proliferate. To this end, they suggested developing a three-dimensional (3D) microenvironment model. “Since the chemicals used for investigating molecular determinants can be harmful to the body, we drew on our team members’ expertise and studied this in an artificial model of bone marrow consisting of 3D-printed materials,” says Nisar. “It’s challenging to ensure reproducibility in 3D microenvironment models since their complexity gives ample room for human error. This is where my expertise came in — by applying robotics principles, we automated processes such as placing cells into 90-well plates, maintaining a pumping system, and monitoring the cells inside.”

Nisar’s collaborations in Interstellar differed starkly from the interdisciplinary work he undertakes with medicine experts in his regular projects. Whereas inputs from medicine usually help improve Nisar’s work on surgical robots, he saw the roles reversed in the Interstellar collaboration. “From a robotics perspective, I didn’t necessarily use the most innovative or cutting-edge technology, but I still made a key contribution,” says Nisar. “Many medical devices and systems are expensive because of their complexity. If we can employ more robotics principles in medicine — even simple ones — I believe we can help make advanced medical technologies more widely available.”

Aging cycles among organs

Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu, whose team won the 2020 award, applied for the program yearning to engage with international peers. “I love taking part in discussions, but there have been fewer opportunities to do so under COVID-19, with one conference after another being cancelled,” she says.

Nakamura-Ishizu’s regular work focuses on the role of cytokines in controlling hematopoietic stem cells throughout the different life stages. With Interstellar, she and her teammates proposed a way to elucidate how inter-organ communication relates to aging rates among organs. “Aging rates vary between organisms and individuals; our proposal explores the possibility that this also varies among organs, and how communication between them plays a role,” explains Nakamura-Ishizu.

Drawing on her expertise in blood cells, as well as her team members’ expertise in bioinformatics and bioengineering, the team proposed investigating the relationship between the liver and bone marrow through liver microtissues modeled on a chip in 3D. Using this, the team aims to discover new targets for age-related diseases in the liver and bone marrow. “The plan is to first narrow down promising factors using a bioinformatics approach and then to validate the factors in vitro and in vivo,” says Nakamura-Ishizu.

Even just formulating the proposal uncovered some surprises. “Interestingly, when our team compared the preliminary data each of us had collected before Interstellar, it turned out that some of the factors that I had believed to be important did not appear so from a genome-analysis perspective. I found surprises like these to be intellectually stimulating,” says Nakamura-Ishizu. “This has also been a valuable learning experience in finding common ground with team members with a stronger focus on clinical applications, as my research focuses on understanding biological processes.”

Nakamura-Ishizu notes that Interstellar provides a rare opportunity for early career researchers to engage in international collaboration. “If it weren’t for an initiative like this, we would only collaborate across borders with researchers from the same field that we meet in conferences,” she says. “It was immensely rewarding to have had the chance to discuss ideas in depth with researchers in other fields.”

To find out more about the Interstellar Initiative Program, see here.

AMED is seeking experienced international researchers to review grant proposals submitted to AMED. If you are interested in becoming a grant reviewer, find out more here.


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