New Delhi: Hiroaki Kitano, a scientist at the University of Tokyo, is a geek with varied research interests. Kitano was part of the team that invented AIBO (Arificial Intelligence Robot), a class of robotic pets designed by Sony Corp. Besides working at Sony’s Computer Science Laboratory, he is also director of the Systems Biology Institute, Tokyo University, where he studies cancer and spends his time figuring out how genes and other biological molecules form networks in the body and communicate among themselves. In an interview, he spoke about his involvement with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) open source drug discovery (OSDD) project, which aims to develop a new tuberculosis (TB) drug molecule in two years, and progress with developing soccer-playing robots. Edited excerpts:
You’ve done seminal projects with Sony, especially on robotic pets. But now you are immersed in biology and working on cancer. Are these fields connected? Is there a natural progression from one to the other?
Yes and no. I’ve been working on artificial intelligence for many years. Intelligence is among the byproducts of evolution and its job is to improve the fitness, survival and reproductive abilities of an organism. Thus it relates to the study of life. I reasoned it wouldn’t be a bad idea spending three-five years understanding life. I can come back anytime to intelligence research with much deeper insight. So, in my mind, it’s connected, a kind of natural extension. When I got into biology, I saw that a lot of it was not systematic, not comprehensible and I thought, geez, there’s a lot missing. You need a revolution in terms of high precision measurement and thinking of biological entities as systems, and I thought, may be I can do something in this field.
Research focus: Kitano is working with CSIR’s open source drug discovery project, which aims to develop a new TB drug molecule in two years. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Systems biology is this new buzzword in science and biology research. What exactly is it?
Systems biology is an integrated field within biology. We try to understand a biological organism at the systems level, in addition to the molecular and genetic level. The beauty of molecular biology is that you can now connect the living organism to the molecular level and that can be connected to the chemistry and physics that govern them. So, when we understand how each molecule is, we begin to understand how all of them talk to one another. Is there a fundamental system behind them that makes them work together? That’s the question systems biology looks at.
Using these approaches, what specific areas are you concentrating your research on?
My group has a major project in cancer, and we also have projects in influenza and (on the structure of) yeast.
So how does this particular CSIR project, which concentrates on tuberculosis bacterium, interest you?
Well, there are three things. Because of the influenza project we’ve also started looking at infectious diseases in general. So, as part of this programme, TB also tied in. The other thing is in the whole approach of OSDD on building a common platform for such studies, and that’s similar to what I had been thinking for many years. Our lab had developed a platform called Payao (which allows sharing of gene maps and bioinformatics tools) that can immediately link to OSDD. Finally, TB is a poor man’s disease and this is a serious social issue that tends to be ignored. And, I thought, this is something to help people.
Do you think such an open source approach is the future of biological research?
In some aspects, yes. If you look at how OSDD has operated till now, it is driven by the students and their project investigators and the passion and leadership of Brahmachari (Samir Brahmachari, director general, CSIR). It is the key. It’s not like just because it is open source, everybody can do whatever they want. The major drive for the OSDD, the way I see is, three things. One, the topic is very good. (Two) TB is a serious Indian problem. (Three) all the Western pharma companies have dropped this topic and so this approach is uniting people in India to find a solution.
So can this approach work for cancer?
Cancer is, first of all, very diverse and, as soon as we talk of cancer, major pharma companies will be spending a lot of money and so, some of the ideas and leads (possible drug candidates) will have already been identified. The economics of getting a drug out, completely changes. In my view, such an approach may be viable in the initial, pre-commercial stages, but once it turns to an area where big companies have already invested, things become more complicated... Plus, I’m not sure how much would cancer motivate students in India. It would be hard to motivate people in Japan for TB, because it is almost non-existent. So students there won’t work from the heart.
Was the Robocup your idea (Robocup is a four-yearly football tournament for robots)? Also, how do you find time for implementing such disparate ideas?
Yeah, that is my idea. That’s not a Sony project. It’s progressing very well and now we have thousands of researchers involved, and by 2050, we’re sure that the robots will beat the human world champions (laughs).