Akiko Tanaka, president of the Tampa Bay Research Institute and a co-founder, is a leading researcher of a compound derived from pinecones, among other folk remedies, as treatment for chronic diseases.
The inspiration for the life work of Akiko Tanaka – president of the first independent research institution in Florida, which pursues the cure for cancer, HIV and other chronic diseases – started with her firsthand experience with Asian flu.
Tanaka came down with the flu as a little girl, during an outbreak in her hometown in Japan. She survived, but when she returned to school, she discovered that one of her classmates had not. She wondered why.
Her mother explained to Akiko, her youngest of 10 children, that she had strong resistance to the disease.
“I’m always curious (about what) my mother always said: the resistance of the immune system,” Tanaka later explained. “Your body’s strength is the immune system. The immune system wasn’t defined when I was learning this.”
Tanaka earned a doctorate in medical microbiology at Showa University and went on to study electron microscopy at Kyoto University, using the equipment to take an up-close photograph of Chlamydia bacteria that would end up in textbooks.
But she soon realized that there weren’t many opportunities open to her as a woman working in the field of science in Japan.
“I realized that it is very limited,” she said. “It still is.”
Tanaka also thought she could help “bring eastern medicine to western soil.” That ambition, coupled with a childhood obsession with American ice cream, prompted her to write to a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they were also studying chlamydia.
“While I’m working (on) dissertation work, I have to study English because I never learned how to speak it,” Tanaka explained.
Tanaka later moved to Chicago to work with a group of people studying viruses, particularly the herpes virus. She moved with that team to St. Petersburg to work at a laboratory called Life Sciences Incorporated, which was studying the herpes virus as well as lymphoma, a type of cancer.
“They needed somebody to take over that program,” she said.
It was around that time that Tanaka and the laboratory’s director of molecular virology – the now late Dr. Meihan Nonoyama, also from Japan – began pursuing an idea for their own research institute. In 1980, Tanaka contacted the president of Showa University, back in Tokyo.
“I gave my idea: it’s time that the Japanese university and the American university people should work together,” Tanaka said.
St. Petersburg would be a good place to do that, she explained. The cross-national collaboration was an idea ahead of its time.
The university funded the construction of a building on Roosevelt Boulevard in St. Petersburg, and the Showa University Institute was established as a nonprofit organization in 1981. The government of Pinellas County also supported the effort.
“We leased them the land for next to nothing because we and the county were very interested in promoting the institute,” said Barbara Sheen Todd, who was a county commissioner at the time and later a member of the institute’s board of directors.
With the death of the Japanese emperor in 1989 – and the corresponding name change of the university that helped found it – the institute name also changed its name, going by the Tampa Bay Research Institute.
At the time, Tanaka often traveled to the university to give seminars and lectures. During one visit, she spoke with a professor that was studying pinecones, prompted by his mother-in-law’s traditional practice of boiling pinecones to help with her stomach disorder.
The institute picked up the research into the folk remedy, later identified as the polyphenylpropenoid-polysaccharide complex, or PPC. In December 1989, the National Institute of Health awarded the institute one of 10 grants to pursue a new drug that could address the outbreak of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
To receive a grant to pursue the study of a folk remedy was “very, very unusual,” Tanaka said.
“Scientists never appreciate folk remedy,” she said.
The institute has since developed a dietary supplement in capsule form, sold on the market through Allera Health Products starting in 2006, called ImmuneExtra. Research continues to develop the extract into a drug that can treat a variety of diseases.
Just in the past year, the institute has made substantial progress, said Guy Bradley, principal investigator, speaking during the institute’s annual community reception Sept. 13.
“We unequivocally proved that PPC rapidly simulates the production of T-cells in response to an immune challenge, be that a vaccine or an infection or a tumor,” he explained. “And even more importantly, we now understand the mechanism by which this happens.”
The discovery gives the institute a method to search for the active molecules in PPC and other natural compounds, he said.
“This also means that we can begin to focus on the best way to develop these molecules into a therapeutics and drugs for the treatment and the cure of human disease,” Bradly said.
Scientists collaborating with the institute also have had encouraging results testing these natural compounds with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, he said.
May Lanning, who met Tanaka in 1983 when they moved to houses next door to each other in Feather Sound, said she and her late husband used to take PPC when it was in liquid form, at Tanaka’s advice.
“It has helped both of us,” Lanning said.
She said Tanaka – a wonderful cook, pianist and avid reader – often wouldn’t come home from the Institute until 11 p.m.
“She lived at the institute. That was her life,” Lanning said.
Her colleagues attribute the success of the institute to Tanaka, who continued its research after her colleague Nonoyama died in 1995.
“The fact that this institute is still independent after 30 years and that our research is still thriving is the greatest testament of this remarkable woman,” said institute board chairman Clifford Cook.
Encouraging other women
For her part, Tanaka credits her nine older brothers and sisters for helping her understand her studies early on in her life. She said she was lucky to have the help of their various explanations when she didn’t understand a lesson in math or science. Other girls, she realizes, did not have that luxury.
“Sometimes, it depends on how the teacher teaches,” Tanaka said. “(Just because) you don’t understand (what) the teacher is saying, doesn’t mean you will be forever not be able to understand.”
Many women have told her that they find her work interesting and wish they could have studied science as a career. They say they were prohibited from doing so by low grades in basic science classes early in their education.
“It’s really silly. Really silly. It’s not really the limit,” Tanaka said. “Many of the girls are so intelligent but just don’t (understand). It requires some extra explanation.”
Aside from mentoring students at the university level, Tanaka has been working with the local Girls Incorporated program, to encourage girls’ interest in science starting at the elementary school level.
“We want to systematically focus … to promote women in going into science,” she said.
The Tampa Bay Research Institute is at 10900 Roosevelt Blvd. For more information, call 576-6675 or visit www.tampabayresearch.org.