Researcher Spotlight: Kazuo Ikeda and an unwavering focus on experiments
September 16, 2015 | by Karen Stevens
Kazuo Ikeda, Ph.D., has wanted to be a scientist since he was 5. “As a boy in Japan, he would run in the rice paddies, catching insects and fish,” said Jane Koenig, Ph.D., one of his colleagues at Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. “He had this driving force – his interest in biology – even then.”
More than eight decades later, Ikeda is still pursuing his passion. Now 89, the professor of neurosciences goes to his lab every day, said Koenig. “All he wants to do is experiments.”
During his nearly half-century at City of Hope, Ikeda has produced a significant body of research. “He is a very accomplished scientist,” said Yoko Fujita-Yamaguchi, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research. “But he is very modest, not wanting to draw attention to himself, preferring to let his work stand on its own merits.”
For most of his career, Ikeda has focused on investigating the underlying mechanisms of synaptic transmission – how neurons communicate with each other and with muscles.
“Synaptic transmission is involved in every aspect of the nervous system,” explained Koenig, an assistant research professor of neurosciences who joined Ikeda’s lab in 1976. “What Kazuo is doing is important because if we don’t understand how a mechanism works, we won’t understand how to fix it when something goes wrong.”
Where insights into neurological disorders startCrucial to his efforts, she said, is his dexterity in handling the fruit fly, Drosophila. He can both dissect the tiny creature and insert electrodes in its neurons and muscle cells to record the cells’ electrical activity.
Koenig also praised Ikeda's “pioneering work” with shibire, a Drosophila mutant that experiences temperature-sensitive paralysis.
Ikeda twice has won the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award, which provides exceptional researchers with financial support from a branch of the National Institutes of Health. Javits grants helped him study “mechanisms involved in nervous system information processing and the genetic basis for these mechanisms,” said Fujita-Yamaguchi. “This research provided important insights into not only understanding mechanisms responsible for neurological disorders, but finding potential therapies.”
Currently, Ikeda is looking at neurotoxins in the environment that have been implicated as risk factors in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Ikeda moved to City of Hope from Caltech in 1967. A native of Tokyo, he received a bachelor's in biology from Tokyo University of Education and a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Tokyo. He came to the United States in the 1960s to complete a series of postdoctoral fellowships.
Outside the lab, Ikeda enjoys what Koenig called “a wonderful, well-rounded life” that includes family – his wife, children and grandchildren – and music. “Kazuo plays the piano and he also took up the violin when he was in his 70s,” she said. “He likes to keep doing things.”
Indeed, when he was a fellow at the University of Connecticut, Ikeda wasn’t happy taking a break during a winter lull in specimen deliveries. So, under the housemother’s watchful eye, he ventured into the women’s dorm to collect flies from the attic.
An unwavering commitment to researchToday, he still dislikes anything that keeps him from his experiments. “At a certain point,” said Fujita-Yamaguchi, “most scientists become managers and administrators and don’t have as much time to go to the laboratory. But not him.”
Mindful of such dedication, City of Hope has found a fitting way to honor the veteran researcher. Earlier this year, he was given his own parking space in the Duarte campus’ often-crowded lots.
“It says, ‘RESERVED Dr. KAZUO IKEDA Distinguished Professor,’ ” said Fujita-Yamaguchi.
“But,” added Koenig, “what he really appreciates is that it makes it easier for him to get to work."
Learn more about Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope.
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