February 07, 2012 | 01:33 PMBack in 1983, Benjamin Chu was scouting for the chemistry department at Stony Brook University. He was speaking with a colleague from Japan about promising researchers. When he asked the director of the Sagami Institute for the names of the "bright people with a future," Iwao Ojima easily made that list.
Ojima's research at an institute and not a university meant there was a chance the transition to a university would be difficult for him because of the need to maneuver through the university funding system that was different from that of an institute. But "we had to take a chance," Chu, now approaching 80 and a distinguished professor at Stony Brook, decided.
Nearly three decades later, that chance worked out for the native of Japan and for the university, as Ojima's long list of honors includes being inducted into the American Chemical Society's Medicinal Chemistry Hall of Fame. Closer to home, he served as the chairman of the chemistry department and is the founding director of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery.
A resident of Port Jefferson, Ojima runs a 26-person lab that is looking for new and effective ways to treat deadly illnesses. Recently, Ojima forged a partnership with drug giant Sanofi in the hopes of bringing a new treatment for tuberculosis, a disease that takes an estimated three million lives per year, making it second only to HIV as the most deadly infectious disease worldwide.
Ojima explains that current drugs don't kill all the tuberculosis cells at the same time. Treatment for a disease that is prevalent in areas like sub-Saharan Africa can require six months or more.
Patients don't always finish taking the series of drugs in the current treatment. TB, which can lurk hidden in a body in an inactive state, can then attack again. This time, the drugs may not be as effective, leading to a deadly strain of the bacteria called multidrug-resistant TB.
Ojima and his lab have used benzimidazole-based compounds to attack TB. These drugs can prevent the bacteria from making a protein called FtsZ, which is critical in maintaining the bacteria and helping it divide. Without it, the tuberculosis dies. Ojima's lab and Sanofi are fine-tuning these drugs to find the ideal structure for clinical use.
"Our target model is unique," Ojima said in a telephone interview. "It can potentially shorten the treatment time."
Ojima envisions combining his new drugs with the existing treatment. The drug cocktail will attack at different parts of the bacteria's growth and development.
"The existing drugs target the synthesis (or building) of the cell wall," he described. "Our drug targets cell division. It's a totally different method of action. If you combine those two, the success rate shoots up."
Before using his new drug as a part of a cocktail, Ojima said his lab and Sanofi need to establish any potential unexpected interactions among the drugs.
Ojima is working on treatments for other diseases. He is trying to find a drug that has a higher level of specificity for colon, pancreatic, prostate and breast cancer cells.
"We have some promising, very targeted anti-cancer drugs," Ojima offered. "We are very excited about our results."
Ideally, Ojima hopes to develop drugs that kill cancer without destroying healthy cells. He hopes to take one of these drugs into clinical trials by early next year.
Ojima takes pride in breaking apart the silos that often develop among departments that are investigating some of the same problems from different perspectives.
"There are very good efforts to create interdisciplinary research at Stony Brook, Brookhaven National Labs and Cold Spring Harbor Labs," he said. "The three centers make a research triangle on Long Island. It's an attractive place for industry."
Indeed, Ojima believes Long Island itself is becoming a much more appealing destination for academic researchers, not only because of the growth of the research institutions, but also because of the expanding and growing cultural options.
Ojima appreciates the combination of natural beauty in the area and the expanding dining and cultural options. He cited the Staller Center as a favorite place to share an evening out with his wife, Yoko Ojima.
A retired opera singer who goes to Manhattan several times a week to direct the Nippon Club Women's Chorus, Yoko and her researcher husband recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
Not to be outdone by her husband's success, Yoko Ojima has taken center stage to perform the title roles of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and "La Boheme" with the New York Grand Opera at Carnegie Hall.
While Ojima leaves the singing to his wife most of the time, he couldn't resist sharing what he considered an important part of their Stony Brook legacy with the graduates of the chemistry department. When he was the chairman from 1997 to 2003, he led the students in a rendition of "Sandy Shore," the school's song, during the department's commencement ceremony.
As for the decision to take a chance on Ojima during Ronald Reagan's first term as president, Chu declared it "one of the best hires I can think of."