The earthquake that devastated Japan last year opened up an opportunity for the University of Chicago to hire one of that country's top geneticists.
Yusuke Nakamura, a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Tokyo's Human Genome Center, was appointed to a cabinet-level position with the Japanese government a year ago, just a few months before last March's disaster. As secretary general of the cabinet's Office of Medical Innovation, he was expecting to spur the development and clinical application of new drugs. But the damage to his country demanded the government's full attention, and he realized that if he were to apply his entrepreneurial ideas on treating cancer, he must do it elsewhere.
His expertise in cancer research and personalized medicine made him an enticing recruit for the University of Chicago, whose researchers had already collaborated with him.
Dr. Nakamura, 59, announced in December that he was leaving his cabinet-level position this month. In April, he will join the university as a professor of medicine. There he plans to continue to apply his work on pharmacogenomics, the study of how a person's genetic inheritance affects the body's response to drugs.
In an e-mail, he explained how the job came about. "I was asked by the former Japanese cabinet to make a national strategy for medical innovation," Dr. Nakamura wrote. "However, because of the terrible disaster by the earthquake, tsunami, and the subsequent nuclear-power-plant issues, the Japanese government could not commit to the long-term strategy."
He decided to focus instead on studying cancer and discovering new ways to improve patients' quality of life.
Among the projects he hopes to continue at Chicago, where he plans to bring seven or eight researchers from Japan, is the development of a potential drug for an aggressive form of breast cancer.
Dr. Nakamura's drive to find the causes of cancer began early in his career when, as an abdominal surgeon, he lost a number of young patients to the disease. After receiving a doctorate in molecular genetics from Osaka University, he spent five years at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Utah.
In 1989, he returned to Japan to continue his cancer research in a variety of high-ranking university and government jobs.
His mother's death from colon cancer in 1999 prompted him to shift his research toward finding ways to detect cancer early and predicting how various drugs work.
One of his earliest contacts with Chicago came through Mark J. Ratain, a professor of medicine who was involved in a National Institutes of Health network of scientists studying how a person's genes affect his or her response to medicines.
In 2007, Dr. Ratain approached Dr. Nakamura, who was then heading another center for genomic medicine in Japan, to suggest a collaboration. The NIH group sent samples from American patients to Japan, where the genetic makeup was identified. The scientists analyzed the data together. "There was no discussion of money or authorship position," said Dr. Ratain, who also directs the university's Center for Personalized Therapeutics. "He agreed to the collaboration for the good of science, and not for any interest in personal or institutional gain."
Kenneth S. Polonsky, dean of the university's Pritzker School of Medicine, said Dr. Nakamura "has had a huge impact in Japan and elsewhere in not only advancing science but in developing novel therapies."