Dr. Ken Takahashi joined the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI) in Sydney, Australia, with some very lofty goals.
The institute’s new director wants to make the world a safer place.
“My goal is to help establish this institute as a global center of excellence for asbestos-related disease,” Takahashi told Asbestos.com. “The mandate here is to serve the Australian people, which I take to heart. But serving the Australian people, and serving the world, are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. And we will try.”
Takahashi, 60, left a longtime position as a professor and director at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health Japan to join ADRI, the world’s only research institute focused exclusively on asbestos and asbestos-related diseases.
Exposure to asbestos can lead to a number of serious health issues, including pleural plaques, asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
He brings his expertise as a renowned epidemiologist to complement an already highly regarded institute.
ADRI, which opened in 2009, has excelled in its effort to uncover better diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, create novel treatment, and do preclinical research that includes new biological and molecular techniques.
Takahashi has focused his career, conversely, more on prevention of asbestos disease and epidemiologic research of occupational lung diseases, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.
“There already is an excellent track record established here, but I do see room for development. That’s where I will contribute. I want to improve the comprehensiveness and expand the portfolio of this institute. This is where I can make a difference.”
His research in Japan often attracted worldwide attention. He was lead author for a 2013 research study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that accentuated the need for more global vigilance in curbing the use of toxic asbestos.
Takahashi’s research sparked many of the countries that already ban the use of asbestos to provide more support for a global ban, citing a potential rise in the death toll of developing countries.
He served as an advisor and examiner to several academic institutes in different countries across Asia. He will continue his role as consultant with the World Health Organization (WHO) as its expert on chemical safety and epidemiology.
“We see countries across the world still using asbestos, expecting a large, serious burden of disease in the future,” he said. “As an occupational health person, I should be doing something about that. That’s what motivates me now.”
Although Australia officially banned all asbestos-containing products in 2003 — making it illegal to sell, install, use or reuse the material — asbestos diseases will remain a serious problem in the country for many years.
It typically takes 20-50 years after asbestos exposure before mesothelioma is diagnosed.
Australia still has one of the world’s highest, per capita, incidence rate of malignant mesothelioma with more than 600 new cases diagnosed annually. It stems from the ubiquitous use of asbestos products through much of the 20th century.
The majority of cases stem from occupational exposure, which is Takahashi’s expertise.
“Asbestos-related disease is 100 percent preventable,” he said. “I want to protect workers around the world. We still have to tackle the problem of the pro-asbestos movement that is supported by the asbestos industry.”
ADRI started in 2010 with the blessing of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
It is part of the Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation (ADRF).
Today, it includes the Australian Mesothelioma Register, which receives notification of all new cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in the country, a national mesothelioma tissue bank for research and the Prevention through Education Program.
Current research projects include:
“In terms of preclinical and clinical research, there is an excellent record already here,” Takahashi said. “The personal challenge as the new director is to find the best mix between continuity and change.”