Much of the credit for the effort to map the human genome has gone to U.S. and European scientists. But there is one Japanese who deserves equal recognition: Hideki Kambara, senior chief scientist at the Hitachi Central Research Laboratory. In his lab tucked away in a forest in western Tokyo, Kambara developed DNA sequencing technology that has accelerated the process of analyzing genetic code to 100 times that of conventional machines. The innovation has been a huge boost to researchers seeking rapid DNA analysis.
While sequencing machines date back to the late 1980s, only in the last decade has innovation in the field produced faster and more precise analytical tools. Kambara developed a system that greatly simplified the enormous task of parsing strands of DNA. Known as the capillary array method, it uses thin, transparent quartz tubes. Genes are inserted into the tubes, and then laser beams scan the DNA and map the genes as they are pumped through the tubes. Today, Kambara's method has been incorporated into sequencers used by research teams attempting to finish mapping the human genome by 2003.
The son of a prominent nuclear scientist, Kambara began tinkering with scientific machines as a child, when he built his own telescope so he could pursue a passion for star-gazing. As a graduate student, he built an electron scattering instrument in order to conduct experiments for his doctoral thesis on electron scattering by atoms and molecules.
Kambara forsook an academic career to join Hitachi Ltd. (HIT) in 1972, hoping to tap into a geyser of research funds. But bud-gets were slashed in the wake of the first oil shock, and Kambara found himself creating his own equipment from scratch once again. The inventor acquired his first patent for a device that can trace impurities in gases. The technology was later used in air-pollution measuring equipment. Today, Kambara has more than 300 patents in his name.
Kambara, 57, came to genetic research midway in his career. In the early 1980s, he read an article on human genome research. "I thought at the time it would become very important for humankind," recalls Kambara. "Then I started thinking about the type of technology that kind of research would require." In 1982, Kambara embarked on the project of his lifetime.
He's still going strong--and still thinking ahead. "Everything is in flux as we acquire new ideas and new forms of business," says Kambara. Two years ago, Kambara turned his attention to developing even more sophisticated sequencing technology that will enable medical researchers to develop custom drugs and therapies for individual patients. He figures he needs another one to two years before the technology can go commercial.
The biggest issue is whether Hitachi, which is slashing research funding, will continue to back the project. But Kambara is confident the development of DNA sequencers for medical use is important and potentially lucrative enough for Hitachi to spin it off as a separate venture. Judging by his record, this creator of innovative machines will find a way around any obstacle that's thrown up.