What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
I focus on how different countries regulate translational research and clinical application of human cell-based products. My first real interest in these issues emerged out of observing how various companies were able to aggressively oversell unproven, and sometimes harmful, stem cell interventions, often without any legal repercussions.
The thing I most enjoy about this work is the diversity of information I have to try to absorb in an effort to understand why the stem cell marketing industry has continued to expand. In addition to reading papers in biology and medicine, I have learned a lot from looking at law, economics, sociology, and even religious studies. Every time I think I have the puzzle nearly complete, a whole new empty space opens up. These days, I think of the problem of stem cell marketing has become a lens through which I learn about broader trends in policymaking and legislation.
What led you to become involved with stem cell research?
I am not a scientist or doctor, so my path to the field was pretty circuitous. I moved to Japan in 1991 after graduating from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. After living in a Buddhist temple for a half-year, I ended up working at a video game company (Sega) and a medical software development team (NEC) before joining Nature Japan. By 2001 I realized I didn’t really like working for big companies and found a great opportunity to do science communications work at RIKEN in Kobe, and moved there in 2002. The research center (RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB)) where I started was focused mainly on developmental and regeneration biology, and of course it was a very exciting time for the field. I traveled to many meetings and joined ISSCR in 2002 at the recommendation of Shin Nishikawa. I’ve been to every meeting since then and have had the good fortune to serve on numerous committees and task forces.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
I think like many researchers it is the thrill of figuring out why something works the ways it does. Social issues are generally not as neatly explainable as some questions in the natural sciences, but there is still a lot to learn from turning over rocks and seeing what’s wriggling around under them.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
I’m probably not the best person to approach for mentoring advice, as I haven’t been through the grad school/postdoc experience, and don’t have any staff or students. That said, the policy/ethics research space seems pretty diverse—I know people with backgrounds in law, philosophy, anthropology, political science, and economics, as well as biology and medicine. If you spot a policy development that affects your country or your field, and you feel the world should know about it, don’t hesitate to report on it. In my experience, talking with editors is the best way to get a sense of whether they share your interest, and to get help in crafting a publishable manuscript.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
So many people have been so generous with their support and advice it is hard to single out just a few. Although I only knew Paolo Bianco for a few years, we developed a very close friendship and I was always a bit in awe of his passion and breadth of learning. We were working on a paper at the time of his death, and I’ve always regretted that he was not able to see it published. Leigh Turner is also a great colleague and friend who in my view has become the most knowledgeable person in the world on the direct-to-consumer stem cell marketing industry, and its most formidable critic. Civil society needs more publicly active scholars like him!
How do you spend your free time?
Actually, at the moment I’m kind of between pastimes. I ran long distance for many years—my father was a track coach, so I started young. But after training for a marathon in 2016, I started thinking I should try something new. Although I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t decided yet! I boxed for a few years but don’t know if my old lungs could go more than a round or two these days. I definitely do spend a lot of time reading, so in a sense my job and hobby intersect. Lucky me!
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
For a few years I worked as a freelance translator (Japanese-to-English), and have translated or edited 13 books, ranging from art history to pop psychology to the autobiography of the Japanese cell biologist, Shoichiro Tsukita.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Meeting old friends, making new friends, learning new things, and sharing things I’ve learned.