Tang Prize Laureate to Students:Stay Curious!

  • Tasuku Honjo, 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
  • Tasuku Honjo, 2014 Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science
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Inaugural Tang Prize Laureate in Biopharmaceutical Science Tasuku Honjo delivered a talk to an audience of 150-plus students and bioscience enthusiasts Monday (June 29) at National Taiwan University. His talk, entitled “Perseverance—Tang Prize Laureate Tasuku Honjo and his Research in Cancer Immunotherapy,” was hosted by PanSci and CommonWealth Magazine. Yang Yen-yu, a student in parasitology from the Graduate Institute of Microbiology at NTU and She Meng-ping, student in gastroimmunobiology from the Graduate Institute of Physiology at NTU, joined Honjo on stage for post-talk discussion. Among the topics were future challenges for cancer treatment and perseverance on the long road of research. To a young crowd just beginning to consider a career in the sciences, Honjo’s experience was a valuable point of reference. 

She Meng-ping says that she is still deliberating on whether research would be lucrative enough to consider as a career. On that point, Honjo says that he himself was also young and also poor, and so making more than necessary was never a worry. Instead he spent the energy on learning and research. But students today have a different set of priorities and standards. Now students search out careers with higher returns. He says that while there are still many opportunities for work, students have lost the essential quality of the scientific endeavor: to be curious and ask questions. 

In his observations of the youth of today, Honjo’s advice for students and scientists came in the form of his 6 “C’s.” He tells young people that they must be Curious and look for their own answers, they must have the Courage to face Challenges as they come, they must Continue on their path with Concentration and Confidence. Of the six C’s, the most important he believes is Curiosity. Curiosity is what motivated him to investigate how immunocytes recognize disease, and curiosity is what has kept him moving through failure and uncertainty. He encourages young people to find and challenge themselves with the questions that excite them, which, he points out, is what it means to be a scientist. A scientist holds curiosity and skepticism close to the heart, even when this means not accepting as dogma what is written in the textbooks. Confidence and courage also play a large role in searching out the answers to Mother Nature’s big questions, because just like in nature, there is failure and hardship.  

Today’s academic world is highly competitive and places the focus on publishing new work; that often means that researchers try to find easy—but trivial—questions to answer, just to keep up. That should not discourage students from thinking about the deeper, subtler questions, Honjo says. Even his own work did not make it into journals at the time like Science and Nature, but had to wait until 2013 when cancer immunotherapy was named the Science “Breakthrough of the Year,” nearly 20 years after the discovery.

Research is not without its plateaus and uncertainties. Already six years into his own research of PD-1, Honjo had no reportable results. “My student was not happy, I was not happy,” he recalls. But then in a case of perseverance and luck, he and his research assistant decided to wait just a little longer for their mice models to respond; that patience and luck paid off in their discovery of the function of PD-1. On top of a difficult six years, Honjo spent one year more just persuading pharmaceutical companies to produce humanized PD-1 antibody for clinical trial.  

Industry and academia, not often close partners, should work together to benefit more people, says Honjo. He suggests building a mechanism that better funnels the profits of biopharmaceutical companies back to the researchers who do the basic research that leads, in a feedback loop, to new pharmaceuticals. This is especially important now that government is cutting funding to universities, he stresses.

After the roundtable discussion between Honjo and the NTU students, the floors were opened for questions from the audience. While always keeping the methodological clarity of a scientist, Honjo answered questions from the audience with verve and wit, never failing to find the humor within the hardship of science. 

Honjo’s most recent visit to Taiwan (since the award ceremony in 2014) included a speech at the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America (SCBA) 15th International Symposium on the morning of June 29, and a visit to southern Taiwan on the 27th and 28th, including a trip to the Rinari aboriginal tribal area in Pingtung and a musical reception from Evergreen Lily Elementary School. Later, on his survey of the reconstructed disaster areas from Typhoon Morakot, Honjo praised the results for their quickness and efficiency, and says that Japan could learn much from the effort. When asked which aspect of Taiwan impressed him the most, Honjo responded, “the food,” especially Taiwanese mangoes, which just happened to be in season.