While the earthquake and ensuing tsunami brought research to a halt, most institutions involved have either resumed or are close to resuming near-normal operation. [© ThorstenSchmitt - Fotolia.com]
The numbers stagger the imagination: 15,683 people lost their lives in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, while another 4,830 people remain missing, according to the August 8 edition of the National Police Agency’s records. Japan’s life science community did not escape unscathed from the twin natural disasters.
The earthquake and tsunami brought to a halt research at Japan’s academic and independent institutions and companies. In nearly all cases, though, by now, some five months after the disasters, the institutions involved have either resumed or are close to resuming near-normal operation.
The disasters have forced the government to delay releasing an updated Science and Technology Basic Policy Report for the five years ending in 2016. This would be Japan’s fourth effort at a five-year plan for growing these industries.
The report was originally scheduled for March but is now expected to win adoption by Japan’s cabinet later this month, the Mainichi Daily News reported on July 29. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has thus far said that the plan will begin to wean his nation away from nuclear power in response to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Damage to Labs and Intellectual Assets
Among universities most disrupted was Tohoku University. At about 81 miles, or 130 km, west of the earthquake epicenter, it was the closest academic institution to the disaster site. Total damage including damage to laboratory equipment and buildings is estimated at $32 million.
“Our university buildings have largely escaped destruction but, inside, equipment and facilities are damaged or annihilated,” explained Toshio Miyata, M.D., Ph.D., director of the United Centers for Advanced Research and Translational Medicine (ART), based at the university, told GEN. Laboratories located on higher floors were more severely damaged.
“One of our great concerns and priorities is to preserve our valuable intellectual assets, for example, genetically engineered animals, frozen materials, and cells. So we focused on the preservation of laboratory assets,” recalled Dr. Miyata, who is also special advisor to Tohoku University’s president as well as professor and executive advisor to the dean of the university’s Graduate School of Medicine.
“We had been forced to live in uncomfortable environments and were unable to concentrate on research and clinical trials activity for a couple of months,” Dr. Miyata continued. The earthquake caused a full-scale blackout in the university’s home city of Sendai and large areas of the Tohoku region for a few days.
Disrupted telephone lines, computer servers, water supply, gas connections, and transportation systems left ART’s activities interrupted for at least a few weeks. During the first few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, Dr. Miyata said, he and other members of the community had to organize for themselves their own supply of food and living necessities.
“During the first six days after the earthquake, we succeeded to personally supply food: 5,000 kg rice, 3,200 milk cans for babies, as well as 2,800 blankets, 8,000 dry batteries, 12,000 tissue paper boxes, etc.,” Dr. Miyata reported.
"Several small cities or towns along the seashore have been completely wiped out by the tsunami,” Dr. Miyata remarked. “Many hospitals in these regions are out of function due either to the paucity of medicines and staff or, even worse, to their destruction. Our faculty staff—many of them are doctors—thus shared the responsibility to encourage and support not only students and university members but also patients and medical staff working in the damaged regions.”
“It wasn’t until May that we could get started on research activities,” Dr. Miyata added. “Many people felt mentally depressed for the first few weeks.” Those feelings have lessened as time has passed and the need to rebuild lives, communities, and institutions has intensified. “I do not think personally most are bound by our past so much. We are willing to challenge, regenerate, and restructure,” he noted.
Restoration efforts will be complicated, he acknowledged, by a brain drain that has seen many young researchers leave ART and carry out their work elsewhere. “Most if not all foreign faculty staff and students went back to their own countries soon after the disaster and did not come back until the middle of May, partly because of the request by their embassies,” Dr. Miyata explained. “We would rather invite proactive staff and researchers who could become the core of our regeneration and restructuring.”
Restrictions on Electricity
The only remaining constraint on operations, he said, is that Tohoku continues to operate under restrictions that have forced a 20% cut in electrical energy use. “The restricted electric energy is a bigger concern than the nuclear radiation issue for us researchers,” Dr. Miyata said.
During the summer, Japan’s authorities directed government-related facilities to reduce power consumption by 15%. RIKEN was also affected by this mandate. The institute said that it has kept its office lights and air conditioning turned off as much as possible without hindering the safety of daily operations.
RIKEN has also limited the use of the accelerator at the Wako, Saitama Prefecture campus and the RIKEN Integrated Cluster of Clusters supercomputer. The supercomputer was restricted to nighttime hours in the days after the earthquake but has since been restored to normal operation.
The limitations “will have an effect on research activities, particularly for experiments that require equipment that uses a lot of electric power,” Jens Wilkinson, a member of RIKEN’s translation team in its global relations office, told GEN.
“RIKEN has facilities in various places of Japan, and the only site that was heavily hit was the Sendai facility. There was considerable damage to equipment used in photochemistry there,” Wilkinson said. “The most expensive damage was the breakage of two MBE (molecular epitaxy beam) devices due to the prolonged loss of electric power rather than the earthquake.
“It will take some time to fully repair and inspect the facility and equipment, but some research activities have already resumed, and the situation is gradually returning to normal as the equipment is put back into use.”
At RIKEN’s main campus in Wako, the accelerators of the Nishina Center for Accelerator-Based Science were shut down after the earthquake to check for damage but have gradually returned to normal operation.
Among companies, Astellas Pharma issued periodic announcements detailing the damage sustained in the disaster and the steps taken to restore facilities and operations. Employees were idled before returning to work April 18 at the company’s process chemistry labs within the Takahagi Chemistry & Technology Development Center. Full operations restored two months later.
Still offline, however, is the Takahagi Technology Center, which manufactures Harnal (tamsulosin) for prostate enlargement, the osteoporosis treatment Bonoteo® (minodronic acid hydrate), as well as other drugs. Bonoteo was jointly developed with Ono Pharmaceutical and is also sold under the name Recalbon®.
“Restoration of manufacturing facilities is progressing at the Takahagi Technology Center, and production is expected to begin from October,” Astellas said in an April 26 news release. Astellas representatives did not respond to GEN inquiries about whether the company is still holding to that timeframe for reopening the center.
Learning from the Past
Astellas has estimated a disaster-related loss of ¥4.5 billion (about $58.4 million). Most of that loss—roughly ¥3 billion, or some $38.9 million—was booked in the year that ended March 31. Despite those losses, Astellas donated $1.2 million through the Japanese Red Cross, and the Astellas USA Foundation, $100,000. In addition, Astellas Pharma US has been matching the donations of employees to the American Red Cross. Tohoku University raised $573,851 in the month after the earthquake and tsunami.
If there’s anything good that could come from the disaster, it is the focus placed by institutions across Japan on drawing lessons that could help future generations avoid the worst effects of another disaster. One of Dr. Miyata’s lessons include distinguishing between valuable intellectual assets that cannot be obtained elsewhere and preserving these first rather than lab equipment, which can be re-purchased.
Another lesson calls for institutions to maintain their own sources of electricity, at least for preserving intellectual assets. Still other lessons include organizing food and living necessities for emergencies, developing leadership and governance policies with the cooperation of faculty and staff, forwarding accurate information quickly to staffers, and agreeing to implement emergency plans quickly as need arises.
As Japan’s life science community continues to return to close-to-normal operations, two of the numerous challenges resulting from the disasters will require urgent attention: repatriating researchers who left immediately following the worst, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure with greater resistance to as well as forewarning of earthquakes and tsunamis. If these are not covered by the five-year science and technology plan to come out later this month, they should be addressed as soon after as possible.