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Stanford University School of Medicine

Found in translation – Kyoto style

This week I'm visiting Kyoto University to spark something similar to SPARK, the program at Stanford that translates fundamental academic research into drugs and treatments to benefit patients.

I founded SPARK 10 years ago when I realized how hard it was for me, a professor at Stanford's medical school, to get the world of drug developers interested in a discovery from my lab that I felt sure could improve patients' lives. In my TEDMED presentation last year, I talked about SPARK's successes at promoting translational research. Among them: More than two dozen of the Stanford projects have launched start-ups or been licensed to existing companies. Meanwhile, other institutions inside and outside the United States are using SPARK as a template for programs of their own -- which brings me to my week in Japan.

After a very productive day with several professors at Kyoto University, my host, associate professor Tomoyoshi Koyanagi, PhD, took me to a very old tea house for a tea ceremony, hosted by Makoto Sarata. Sarata-san is an assistant manager in the Entrepreneur Nurturing Support Department of the Advanced Science and Technology Management Research Institute of Kyoto (a mouthful and yet incomplete title).

As I entered the beautiful tea house, surrounded by a manicured moss garden, I met Sarata-san, a strongly built man who had a huge smile and boundless energy. We sat on the tatami floor mat, drank the green foamy tea in large ceramic bowls, and talked. As you'll see, the tea house turned out to be the perfect place to talk about translational research.

Sarata-san talked about design thinking and "smile value," which are his tools to encourage entrepreneurship. Using these tools, he triggers participants to think creatively and positively by first identifying and choosing a problem and only then working on solutions and sorting through many of them to find the one to focus on. I contrasted these tools with our approach in SPARK, which has to include building on years of research that identified a lead (a beginning) for a solution. We talked about SPARK's challenge, as the process depends on so many diverse types of expertise (medicine, chemistry, material science, pharmacology, etc.) and how that generates language barriers.

As we continued, I also heard more about the ancient and beautiful tea tradition. Sarata-san told us that after finishing the tea, it's the custom for guests to carefully inspect the bowl and admire it from all sides, as each bowl is unique. I immediately picked up my empty bowl from the tatami and held it high to show my appreciation. What a cultural faux pas! After a belly laugh, Sarata-san explained the mistake: The bowl was over 200 years old and I showed disrespect. The proper way is to bend down close to the tatami and elevate the bowl only slightly, so not to risk breaking it. Lost in translation?

As we were putting on our shoes, preparing to leave this ancient tea house, Sarata-sun, called out the tea house chairperson, Kanako Hamasaki. Hamasaki-san, a beautiful young woman, has a PhD in Kodo, the "way of fragrance." I'm not sure if I understood her explanation of her expertise on the effect of incense on the body. But the discussion was cut short when she exclaimed: "I have the same boots as yours!" We were just two women, sharing the same language - women's love for shoes.

Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, is a professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford and the founder and director of  SPARK. A version of this post originally appeared on the TEDMED blog, alongside her presentation from TEDMED 2015.

Previously: The secret sauce for drug development success: Stanford's Daria Mochly-Rosen at TEDMED, SPARKing a global movement and At TEDMED 2015: Thinking about "breaking through" the valley of death in science
Photo by Christian Kaden

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