Bringing Together Medicine, Science and Engineering to Deliver Beneficial Innovations to Society
Tokai University's Micro/Nano Technology Center is utilizing the concept of "interdisciplinary research " - collaboration between researchers in different specialist fields, such as medicine, science, and engineering - to develop next-generation medical technologies that benefit society. The Center has recently added specialists in humanities fields to its research team, and is working closely with corporations to conduct innovative research in a diverse range of fields not limited to medical technology. We talk to Professor Rio Kita, one of the Center's key members, about the team's research findings so far, as well as the Center's future plans.
Interviewer: Masayoshi Nakane
Question:What are the roles and objectives of the Micro/Nano Technology Center?
Answer:The Center was selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) under the Strategic Research Foundation at Private Universities program five years ago, and focuses its research on utilizing ultra-thin polymer films to generate next-generation medical technology. The Center is home to eight researchers, and our distinguishing feature is interdisciplinary research - in other words, faculty members specializing in different fields such as engineering, science, and medicine collaborate together on a single topic.
The primary focus of our research is utilizing the properties of ultra-thin polymer films in medical applications. Polymers exist everywhere, and flattening a polymer film down to 100 nanometers in thickness gives it the ability to affix to organs or skin without glue. Over the past five years we have researched the potential applications of such sheets, such developing plasters that negate the need for sutures, developing disease models that do not require animal testing by utilizing these sheets together with devices, and utilizing these sheets as thrombosis cleaners, negating the need for surgery. Thus far we have focused on collaboration between medicine, science, and engineering, but going forward we would like to utilize Tokai's strengths as a multidisciplinary institution by combining the humanities and sciences, and even incorporating an all-round perspective that includes health, sports, and physical education expertise.
Q:What are you researching, specifically?
A:My field of specialty is studying the properties of molecules such as polymers and biopolymers, so my research at the Micro/Nano Technology Center focuses on this perspective.
In general, when you experiment dissolving something in water or another solvent, its constituents ultimately gravitate toward the cooler areas. Although this phenomenon can, to an extent, be explained qualitatively by physics, the proteins, DNA, and polysaccharides that hold the key to the phenomenon of life defy the currently accepted principles of physics by gravitating to warmer areas. I am studying why this occurs.
In another subject of my research - recent technology allows us to photograph the temperature distribution within a cell, and the areas of high and low temperature within a single cell create a very colorful map. The thermal gradient within a tiny cell is far more pronounced than the results I have gathered through my experiments - in which case, it may be that cells are actively utilizing the propensity of polymers to gravitate to warmer areas. This might hold the key to as-yet unknown life phenomena, and this research could ultimately prove a link to the origin of life.
I am also studying ways to utilize the phenomenon of thermophoresis to separate tritiated water, with the aim of applying this technology to separate contaminated water generated by the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. This method involves applying a temperature gradient to flowing contaminated water, then separating this water into areas of high and low contamination at an exit, utilizing this property to the optimum effect. For example, if this process is repeated ten times, the contamination in the water could be reduced to a minimal level, allowing it to be safely returned to the environment. The Micro/Nano Technology Center is fortunate to have the expertise of associate professor Hiroshi Kimura (Department of Mechanical Engineering), who specializes in controlling liquid flow using microfluidic devices, and we are working together jointly on this project. It can be said that this is thanks to the Center, which focuses on combining different fields.
Professor, Department of Physics, School of Science
Dr. Rio KITA
Dr. Kita received his PhD in engineering from the graduate school of engineering of Gunma University in 1999. After working as a postdoctoral researcher at RIKEN, Japan, and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research/Mainz, Germany, where he was group leader for polymer analysis, he joined Tokai University's Department of Physics (School of Science) as a lecturer in 2005, before assuming his current position in 2014. He is vice-editor of Colloid and Polymer Science magazine, and a board member of the Japanese Society of Biorheology. His fields of specialization include polymer physics, thermodynamics, and solution theory, and he studies the physical properties of soft materials in equilibrium and non-equilibrium states. Dr. Kita concurrently serves as director of Tokai University's Micro/Nano Technology Center in addition to his position in the Department of Physics, and is also president of Tune Co., Ltd., a Tokai University venture company.