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Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute launches 'Rising Fellow Program': Research grants for promising young researchers of up to 100 million yen for five years


The Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute (Toyota Riken) (Chairman Akio Toyoda) has launched a new Rising Fellow program to provide research grants of up to 100 million yen over a five-year period to young researchers with promising futures, and the first three awardees have been selected.

From among those who have been accepted as Toyota Riken Scholars in the past, the Rising Fellow Program provides large grants of 20 million yen per year, and up to 100 million yen over five years, to up-and-coming researchers who have conducted outstanding research activities and will hopefully become top-notch researchers in the future. 66 applications from past Toyota Riken Scholars have been received this fiscal year, and after the applicants were vetted through application dossiers and interviews, the Fellow Selection Committee (Chairman: President Maki Kawai of the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS)) selected Associate Professor Saneyuki Ohno (age 35) of the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials (IMRAM) at Tohoku University; Associate Professor Yuki Goto (age 42) of the Department of Chemistry, the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo; and Specially-Appointed Associate Professor Soyoung Park (age 44) of the Immunology Frontier Research Center (IFReC) at Osaka University.

Ohno's research theme is 'Frontier of solid-state ionics pioneered by anion complexation.' Highly ion-conductive inorganic solid materials constitute the core of future technologies such as fuel cells and next-generation energy storage devices. However, it is not easy to make ions behave in solids as they do in liquids. Ohno ultimately aims to understand and control ion dynamics in inorganic materials, and he aims to expand the material search targets through anion complexation and establish material design guidelines using the high-degree-of-freedom design method. He has been conducting research on solid-state ionic materials in which ions move inside solids, focusing on the development of new material design guidelines. Thanks to his contributions to global research on solid-state ionic materials founded on materials science and solid-state physics, he has outstanding scientific achievements to his name such as in the fields of anion sublattice distortion, fluctuations in chemical potentials, and the correlation between lattice vibration changes and ionic conductivity. The fusion of a diverse group of materials, including oxides, sulfides, and halides, can have a significant impact on ion dynamics.

Conventional solid-state ionic materials research has focused primarily on compounds in which a single type of anion forms the backbone of the material. The awarded research will incorporate the new trend of combining multiple anions to create a vast material space and establish a new frontier in solid-state ionics. More specifically, the research will be guided by the following three pillars: 'Search for novel materials,' 'Establishment of basis for design guidelines,' and 'Concerted transfer of electrons.' The research will make full use of the correlation of crystal structure-composition-lattice vibration-ion transfers. It aims to realize future technologies through the systematic material exploration and establishment of design guidelines that take advantage of a high-degree-of-freedom design method.

Ohno commented, "I am very honored and humbled to be selected as one of the first generation of Toyota Riken Rising Fellows. When I received the notice of award during an international conference, I was at first so happy and excited, and then so overwhelmed by the responsibility and pressure behind it, that I couldn't listen to the conference for a while. My research has focused on developing a deeper understanding of materials and phenomena. This research will pave the way for setting another pivotal step in the creation of yet-to-be-seen materials. I am now excited about the new challenges ahead."

Goto's research topic is 'Elaboration of hybrid pseudo-natural peptides synthesis strategies.' Many peptides in natural products that exhibit strong bioactivities have characteristic non-proteinaceous local structures. However, because the biosynthetic pathways of each class have evolved toward individual design of the construction of specific local structures, the variety of such structures in a specific compound is very narrow. Therefore, the intent is to construct an artificial biosynthesis system in vitro that enables the cooperativity of a group of enzymes involved in the production of different local structures. This triggers an enzymatic synthesis of artificial molecules (hybrid pseudo-natural product peptides) with multiple local structures in combinations not found in nature. Furthermore, rapid screening by the in vitro molecular selection method enables the creation of artificial bioactive molecules acting on desired target proteins. Such studies are aimed at establishing a methodology to freely create peptide drugs with required efficacy and properties.

Goto stated, "I am grateful for the opportunity to be offered a position as a Rising Fellow, which has been just launched as a new initiative of the renowned Toyota Physical and Chemical Research Institute, and I truly feel a heavy responsibility. I would like to continue research based on my own interest to 'Create a useful and ingenious compound!' and enjoying such research along with my students, I also hope to contribute to the fostering of the next generation of researchers."

Park's research theme is 'Development of functional nucleic acids by biomolecular ensembles and construction of basic platforms for drug discovery." Nucleic acid drugs are molecular-targeted drugs that enable direct control of gene expression and are attracting attention as biopharmaceuticals that have a significant advantage in that they can be chemically synthesized at low cost like small molecule drugs while having high target selectivity like antibody drugs.

However, the problem is that nucleic acid oligomers that function as nucleic acid drugs are unstable because they are easily degraded by enzymes in the body, making them difficult to transport to target organs. Therefore, the research aims to solve this problem by developing a new bio-ensemble molecule that combines nucleic acids with amino acids and fatty acids. The intent is to construct a library of molecules that contain amino acids and fatty acids within the nucleotide sequences of miRNA and aptamer, and to develop novel nucleic acid drugs such as miRNA-based anti-inflammatory drugs and anti-cancer drugs.

The main feature of the technology to be demonstrated in this research is the ability to precisely control biomolecules at the single nucleobase/residue level using a bottom-up method that takes advantage of the inherent complementarity of nucleobases and their strong self-assembling ability. Through these research outcomes, it is expected that fundamental technologies for creating innovative drugs will be established and strengthen Japan's drug discovery capabilities, thereby making a significant contribution to the international community.

Park remarked, "I am very honored to be selected as a Toyota Riken Rising Fellow. I would like to thank the members of the Selection Committee and all the students who have worked together with me on this project. As a researcher, I believe that conducting research makes life and the world richer. I will do my best to ensure that the molecules I have developed will not only bring about academic advances but also contribute to society in practical applications."

This article has been translated by JST with permission from The Science News Ltd. ( Unauthorized reproduction of the article and photographs is prohibited.

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