JSPS Quarterly
No.45 2013 Autumn

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (32)

Dr. Ezzikouri Sayeh
Dr. Ezzikouri Sayeh

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Joint Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kagoshima University, Japan, 2013-present
Researcher, Pasteur Institute of Morocco, 2008-present
Ph.D. Genetic & Molecular Biology, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2008
DESA (M.Sc.) (Genetic & Biostatistiques), Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2004
B.Sc. (Animal Biology), Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2001

Hailing from Morocco, Dr. Ezzikouri Sayeh has been conducting research with his host researcher, Prof. Kyoko Kohara in the Joint Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Kagoshima University under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship since 2013. After obtaining his PhD in Morocco and working as a researcher at Pasteur Institute of Morocco, Dr. Ezzikouri found Prof. Kohara via the Internet and asked her to host him under the JSPS fellowship program.

Would you give us a word about your background?

In 2004, I earned my master’s in genetics and biostatistiques from Chouaib Doukkali University in Morocco. In 2005, I received a diploma in bioinformatics from Pasteur Institute of Paris in France. Then in 2008, I obtained my PhD in molecular biology and genetics from my home university in Morocco. That year, I also received a diploma in basic virology from Pasteur Institute of Paris.

Please briefly describe your research.

Before coming to Japan, I was working as a researcher in the Virology Unit at Pasteur Institute of Morocco. My focus was on hepatitis viruses and related diseases (cirrhosis and liver cancer). My contributions to that field include epidemiology, virology and genetic studies mainly in four areas: (1) Epidemiology of hepatitis viruses in Morocco; (2) Identification of genes related to responses to treatment and spontaneous resolution of hepatitis B and C viruses; (3) Identification of genes related to pathogenesis and the development of liver cancer; and (4) Identification of biomarkers for early diagnosis of liver cancer.

What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?

At the Laboratory of Animal Hygiene, Joint Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kagoshima University, in partnership with other Japanese groups I am focusing on developing the tupaia belangeri treeshrew as a model for the hepatitis B and C virus infection systems based on its whole genome. Until now, there has been no immunocompetent animal model to study hepatitis B (HBV) and C (HCV) viruses except for the chimpanzee, whose application to research has recently become almost impossible due to ethical and economic reasons. We are working to first establish a persistent infection with these viruses and then to study immune responses to the infection. Also, we will try to develop a candidate HBV therapeutic vaccine.
At the same time, Iím evaluating the effect of some candidate compounds against HCV replication in in vitro and in vivo models. Moreover, Iím also involved in the screening Series Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (32) Dr. Ezzikouri Sayeh JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Joint Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kagoshima University, Japan, 2013-present Researcher, Pasteur Institute of Morocco, 2008-present Ph.D. Genetic & Molecular Biology, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2008 DESA (M.Sc.) (Genetic & Biostatistiques), Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2004 B.Sc. (Animal Biology), Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco, 2001 of new biomarkers for liver cancer diagnosis.

How did you become interested in your research field?

This is a long story that started in 2003 when I was looking for a host laboratory to do my masterís study. I received one proposition from a laboratory in a Faculty of Medicine on genetic susceptibility and HCV infection. That started me reading about hepatitis viruses, which was a new topic for me. Not having a computer at that time, I remember handwriting a 100-page bibliography on hepatitis viruses. Due unfortunately to a misunderstanding with my host researcher (this is another story), the project was stopped. After that, I had to find another host researcher to do my MSc thesis. As I learned more about hepatitis viruses, I became increasingly interested in the field and wanted to continue researching in it. I moved to Pasteur Institute of Morocco with the hope of finding other researchers working on hepatitis viruses. God is great: I found a wonderful supervisor (Dr. Soumaya Benjelloun), restarting my research adventure in the field of hepatitis viruses. In that laboratory, I did my masterís and PhD theses, later becoming a researcher in it. In telling this story, I should not forget to mention Dr. Pascal Pineau of Pasteur Institute of Paris, who played an important role in my education on hepatitis viruses from mainly a molecular liver cancer aspect. Building on that experience, I am now working with Prof. Kyoko Kohara on other challenging aspects of hepatitis viruses. Many thanks to all.

How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

If my memory serves me correctly, this is the seventh time I have been asked that question. Given that Morocco is an African country located far away from Japan, we donít have close contact with Japanese researchers and only rare opportunities to meet them. In my case, I got to know about Prof. Kyoko Kohara, who would become my host researcher, via the Internet by searching the website PubMed, which posted her research papers and noted her many scientific accomplishments in the field of hepatitis. I wrote to Prof. Kohara and asked her about the possibility of becoming my host. She kindly accepted and gave me this opportunity to come to Japan. Before arriving, we communicated by email to discuss my proposal.

Why did you choose Japan to pursue your research?

Japan is recognized as a leader in technology, while offering an excellent academic environment with wide educational and research opportunities. In addition, Japan has many prominent scientists who are making big contributions to science.

What is your impression of your host institution?

Kagoshima University promotes and offers an interdisciplinary curriculum including law, economics and humanities, education, science, medicine, dentistry, engineering, agriculture and fisheries. It has also recently established a Joint Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. I enjoy the atmosphere that fills our laboratory and the friendship and support that all its members give to me in both my work and life in Japan. It is a great place for me to not only focus on my research but also enjoy meeting people from different cultural backgrounds.

More generally, what is your impression of Japanís research environment?

To be clear and concise regarding this point, Japanís research environment is very good: It provides a comfortable setting for researchers to optimize the productivity of their work.

What are your research achievements under the JSPS fellowship so far?

Up till now, my research achievements under the JSPS program include a new finding on a naturel compound that inhibits HCV replication in a wild type HCV replicon and a Telaprevir-resistant HCV replicon system, and also in humanized chimeric mice. In addition, we found that this new compound has a synergistic effect with interferon and an additive effect with Telaprevir on HCV replication (a paper has been submitted for publication). In another aspect of my research, we identified a new biomarker for liver cancer diagnosis mainly in patients with HCV infection (a paper is in the writing stage). Finally, I wrote a review on new achievements in HBV-host interactions (published as Ezzikouri et al., 2014).
Ezzikouri, S., Ozawa, M., Kohara, M., Elmdaghri, N., Benjelloun, S., Tsukiyama-Kohara, K., 2014. Recent insights into hepatitis B virus-host interactions. J Med Virol 86, 925-932.
I have also had the chance to participate in four meetings (giving oral and poster presentations).
Now, I will try my best to advance my research during the rest of my tenure.

What do you do outside your research work?

When I have free time, I spend it with my family visiting historic sites of interest, making friends from other countries, and playing some sports.

What do you think of life in Japanóits culture and customs?

Itís totally different from Moroccan culture and customs. Culture and customs in Japan are a mixture of the ancient and modern, making them very interesting on one hand but also quite difficult to understand in a short time on the other. Now, I am working step by step to learn more about the intricacies of Japanese culture by communicating with Japanese people.

Before coming to Japan, what was your image of the country, and has that perception changed?

My initial image of Japan was mainly influenced by its hi-tech machinery and cars. Also, when I was younger I liked Japanese movies (ninja and samurai movies) and manga. Then in 2009, I saw a TV program (Khawater 5) about Japanís experience of progress and the reasons underscoring that success, tailored to Arab and Muslim viewers. I hoped one day to see Moroccans develop our country like the Japanese did theirs. As I expected, upon arriving in Japan I found a high level technology, very polite people who are honorable and hospitable, and a very clean and beautiful country.

What will you do after your fellowship ends?

I will continue my research on hepatitis viruses in the Viral Hepatitis Laboratory at Pasteur Institute of Morocco. The greater experience Iíve gained in Japan will allow me to participate in other projects in the future. I hope to not only continue my collaboration with my colleagues in this laboratory but also to strengthen the relationship between Pasteur Institute of Morocco and Kagoshima University in Japan.

Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?

I would recommend that they come to Japan because the research groups here are very professional and the well-equipped laboratories offer an excellent research environment. Japan is also a beautiful and safe country. You will find the Japanese to be a very polite and hospitable.

As seen in our interview with him, Dr. Ezzikouri is very enthusiastic about his research, which is being advanced one successful step at a time with Prof. Kohara and his lab mates at Kagoshima University. Needless to say, his research, which is applicable to the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis viruses, can yield very important benefits not only for Moroccans and Japanese but also for people around the world.
When Dr. Ezzikouriís tenure as a JSPS fellow ends next March, he intends to use the personal and professional ties he has made in Japan in advancing his research back in Morocco. We look forward to Dr. Ezzikouri being a bridge between researchers in his country and Japan over which colleagual networks are maintained and expanded and future milestones marked in the battle against viral infections and communicable diseases.

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JSPS Quarterly No.45 2013