Cats can live to be 30 years old: a Japanese immunologist shares his findings

Cat friends from all over Japan donate 1.5 million euros

An interview with Professor Miyazaki broadcast last July resonated strongly with all cat lovers in Japan. He said that the development of a new treatment against kidney disease, which seriously affects most cats, was stopped due to lack of funds.

In reaction to this announcement, a multitude of messages sent by cat owners spread like wildfire on social networks, calling for help to this professor to resume research.


Cats also suffer from kidney problems. (Pixta)

“The donation collection page of the University of Tokyo website received several tens of millions of yen in one evening. A new dedicated page was then hastily created, and within a few weeks, nearly 200 million yen (1.51 million euros) had been collected. This prompted several pharmaceutical companies to offer cooperation. “As we have almost reached an agreement with one of them, we will undoubtedly be able to meet the expectations of all cat friends”, explains the professor.

The AIM protein enters the scene

The development of a treatment for cats is a by-product of research carried out to use the AIM protein, which exists in large quantities in the blood, in the fight against human diseases considered today as incurable. The AIM protein exclusively produces macrophage cells from immune cells.

“The AIM proteins stick to various ‘debris’ that cause problems when they accumulate. For example, they attach to dead cells that cause kidney disease when they settle in the kidney tubules, or beta-amyloids that cause Alzheimer’s disease, and make them visible to macrophages which can eat them more efficiently. by the process of phagocytosis. If we strengthen their ability to eliminate this debris, they can help to cure many very diverse diseases. It is possible that using AIMs can control obesity, fatty liver or liver cancer. »

Research in France and the United States

Miyazaki conducted research abroad for 15 years, until 2006.

At the University Louis-Pasteur in France, his research focused on lymphocytes, which have a major role in the immune system, and at the Institute of Immunology in Basel, on new genes linked to immunity. This is how he “by chance” discovered an unknown protein. As he understood that it prolongs the life of macrophages, he called it “AIM”, for Apoptosis Inhibitor of Macrophagethat is to say “molecule which slows down the cell death of macrophages”, and in 1999 published a communication on this subject.

He had discovered this AIM but could not elucidate the way in which it worked. At the University of Texas is a leading researcher in cholesterol metabolism, and one day, inspired by a hallway conversation with him, he studied mice that had been induced to have arteriosclerosis by making you fat. This paved the way for him to elucidate the functions of AIM.

Why do cats so often suffer from kidney problems?

Miyazaki intended to continue his research in the United States, but in 2006, at the invitation of the director of the University of Tokyo Hospital, he became a professor at the Center for Biology of Diseases and Integrative Medicine , created by the University of Tokyo to develop links between medicine and engineering.

Professor Miyazaki Toru's book (Jiji Press)
Professor Miyazaki Toru’s book, “The Day Cats Live to be 30” (Jiji Press)

In 2013, at an extension conference, he learned from a veterinarian in attendance that cats often die of kidney problems. At the time, he was beginning his research on the link between AIM and kidney disease, and he decided to conduct extensive research on cats as well.

“AIM combines in the blood with immunoglobulin (IgM), an antibody composed of a pentamer that associates five subunits. When disease-causing debris appears, the AIM leaves the IGM, like a fighter flying out of an aircraft carrier, sticks to the debris, and begins to clean up. We have discovered that in the case of cats, this cleaning does not happen because the AIM does not detach from the pentamer. »

In 2017, Professor Miyazaki created a start-up specializing in cat medicines, but the health crisis affected the company that was to provide the funding, and development was halted. As we saw above, this start-up was able to take off again thanks to the enthusiastic support of friends of cats. In the future, she will partner with a pharmaceutical company, and will quickly develop an effective drug AIM for cats.

This year also began the development of a food supplement for cats with a pet food company.

“We are also researching a food supplement for humans that would activate AIM to prevent disease, and we have found that the same method can be applied to cats. Next spring we will probably be able to bring the food supplement for these animals to the market. By mixing it into the food given to cats from a young age, it should protect them from kidney problems. »

Great Expectations for a Drug Specifically Combating Mental Deterioration

Because it prioritizes specialization, the Japanese medical community would not favor an approach of treating multiple and diverse illnesses through a simple mechanism, an effective cleansing of debris from the body through enhanced function of AIM. But in 2019, the project was chosen to receive major public research funding, and the development of an AIM drug for humans is well on its way.

“Since we have collected data that indicates that this therapy is effective against all kinds of diseases, we are currently looking for the one against which we will test first. It will suffice to obtain authorization for this new treatment in the face of a pathology against which its effects will appear relatively quickly, and then to extend its field of application. Kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease are our ultimate goals for this treatment. »

Professor Miyazaki in his laboratory at the University of Tokyo (photo by author)
Professor Miyazaki in his laboratory at the University of Tokyo (photo by author)

Unlike synthetic drugs, a protein-based treatment like AIM does not cause side effects, but the manufacturing process is difficult and expensive. The production infrastructure poses a considerable problem.

“The number of Japanese pharmaceutical companies capable of carrying out their integrated manufacturing, from the process of mass production of AIM by cell culture to that of their refining, is limited. If we take the example of Taiwan, the government determined that the establishment of a protein medicine manufacturing system was a nationwide project, and private companies subsequently benefited from this system. The cooperation between the different parties is going well. There is no such initiative in Japan. »

Miyazaki has also embarked on the search for a treatment against Covid-19. He believes that AIM can also have a cleaning effect against debris coming from outside the body. He is currently studying this hypothesis in collaboration with a Canadian university which has facilities where animal contamination is tested.

“While there are many interesting basic research initiatives in Japan, the environment to support such research that has not yet given its first buds is non-existent. The limits of specialization are also perceptible. Until now, medicine has concentrated its efforts on the specifics of each field. If we don’t change this approach, the diseases we don’t know how to cure will continue to be incurable. Isn’t it time to realize this? »

“We must train in the business of medicine”

1er last October, the University of Tokyo announced the creation of a new fund with a dimension of 60 billion yen (453 million euros). The objective is to create 700 start-ups with the University by 2030.

“The promotion of university start-ups is important. Personally, I think that in medicine, doing basic research just to write a dissertation is not enough. If the results of research conducted by doctors do not reach patients and do not come out of laboratories, it seems to me that they cannot be considered complete, can they? To go further, it would be necessary to launch new businesses and raise funds. The system that will make this possible has finally been created. At the same time, it is also necessary to train in the business of medicine. Indeed, it is necessary that the treatments reach the patients, not to generate a profit, but to know how to put the products on the market. »

(Text and reporting by Itakura Kimie, Nippon.com. All photos courtesy of Professor Miyazaki)

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