As Shin-ichiro Imai grew up outside Tokyo, he heard his parents many times tell the story of his unlikely birth. According to Imai, doctors told his mother there was a high risk of losing the pregnancy because of a partially detached placenta. Imai’s mother went to great lengths to find a doctor willing to take a chance on the baby and provide her care.
“Again and again my parents told me this story,” Imai said. “It had a huge impact on me. When I was very young, I wanted to become a doctor. But the message that most ingrained itself in me was that even if there is a very small chance of success, I’m going to give it my best effort. That’s how I was born.”
Today, Imai, MD, PhD, is a professor of developmental biology and of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. And though he does not treat patients, his research has shed light on the processes of aging and longevity, as he has sought to help people maintain better health into later years.
“I began research into aging early on and have been carrying the same interest for nearly 30 years,” Imai said. “The excellence of the science attracted me to Washington University. Our department has encouraged developmental biologists and aging researchers to work together in the same environment to cover the whole spectrum of growth from early development all the way to aging. Everyone is so collaborative and top-notch.”
Despite his precarious start, Imai was an active, outdoorsy child, bringing home all manner of small creatures.
“I collected insects, frogs, salamanders, snakes — well, only one snake,” he said with a laugh. “It escaped from the aquarium, and my mom stepped on it. So no more snakes. I had pet chipmunks and raised silkworms. I loved animals.”
Imai said his parents gave him many opportunities to learn. He took piano, calligraphy and martial arts lessons. He and his father, a high school history teacher, always had projects. Many of them were biology-related, such as growing sunflowers to document their heights and petal sizes. His mother, a high school English teacher, made sure Imai was exposed to the language early by playing tapes of stories and conversations for him.
The value of basic science
Imai remained committed to his early goal of becoming a medical doctor, attending Keio University in Tokyo. In his fourth year of the six-year medical program common in Japan, Imai took an interest in research.
“I knocked on the door of a professor who was running a research lab and asked him to let me have a project,” Imai said. “And the first project was to investigate how cells become immortal.”
Scientists have long been interested in the mechanisms that lead cells to continue dividing well past the time when they would be expected to stop. How cells develop immortality is thought to be important in cancer and aging.
“I thought there may be some kind of counting system in cells, and I wanted to understand it,” Imai said. “Mutations in that counting system seemed likely to contribute to cell immortalization.
“At that time, research was not an official part of the curriculum, so I actually began skipping classes to work on experiments,” he added, laughing. “I spent most of my time in the lab.”
Despite the intense research interest, Imai felt torn between pursuing a career treating patients and one dedicated to basic biomedical science. It was during a medical school lecture that his choice became clear.
“The professor talked about the importance of basic science,” Imai said. “His message was that one doctor can treat one patient at a time. But making some fundamental discovery in medicine can help thousands of patients at one time. This statement struck me, almost like a thunderbolt. It helped me make the final decision.”
Featured article originally published in Washington University Newsroom: Washington People: Shin-ichiro Imai | Molecular biologist seeks the keys to healthy aging