Anniversary of Bilateral Agreement Highlights US-Japan Medical Cooperation

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by Edward Chang
Japanese medical students participating in the “Volunteers in Asia” Program in the San Francisco Bay Area represent a new generation of US-Japan medical collaboration. Image: Volunteers in Asia.

US-Japan relations reached a new milestone with the 50th anniversary of the US-Japan Cooperative Medical Sciences Program (CMSP) in January. A commemorative event held in Washington, DC was marked with a reception by the US Department of State and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and a Memorandum of Cooperation was signed by the directors of the NIH and the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. Established in 1965 by US President Lyndon B. Johnson and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, the bilateral program has sought to facilitate a collaborative effort in biomedical sciences to address prevalent public health problems in Asia through cooperative research, conferences, and exchange programs. Among the program’s achievements have been establishing the International Center for Diarrheal Diseases Research, Bangladesh which introduced oral rehydration therapy as an effective treatment of cholera in the late 1960s, researching the role of Ivermectin as a treatment for “river blindness,” and developing vaccines for diseases such as Hepatitis B, rotavirus, and influenza.

Yet this program is just one example of the strong relationship of medical cooperation between the two nations. Since 1965, exchanges between US and Japanese universities have sought to expose medical students to different health care systems, clinical practices, and diverse cultures. For instance, the Nagoya University School of Medicine currently offers senior medical students from US universities the chance to undertake clerkships in the Japanese health system. The Volunteers in Asia program, run in conjunction by the University of California-San Francisco and Stanford University, offers a two week program for Japanese medical students to experience American culture and discuss preliminary US healthcare issues in the Bay Area. That program’s organizers were inspired by a confluence of factors, including Silicon Valley’s pivot towards biotechnology with burgeoning healthcare start-ups and the Bay Area’s cultural diversity, with around 24% of its population from an Asian background and an estimated 40,700 Japanese residents. The group also operates programs for Chinese and Taiwanese students.  California-based Apple, Inc. is also currently constructing a major research and development facility in Yokohama, Japan, which has been reported will include a health technology division when it begins operations later in 2016.

The value of US-Japan medical collaboration was exemplified by the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine to Japanese and American scientists for the discovery of anti-parasitic compound, Avermectin. Scientific cooperation was also furthered by the launch of the Gates Grand Challenge in 2015, with both nations pledging funds to tackle less prevalent diseases. With decades of expertise on advanced medical research, the US and Japan are strongly poised to continue their productive partnership.

Edward Chang is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at the University of Sydney.