Studying these cells could lead to new treatments for diseases ranging from gastrointestinal disease to diabetes.
MIT and Menicon Co., Ltd., the leading manufacturer of contact lenses in Japan, announced Monday that the company will endow the Menicon Professorship in Neuroscience at MIT.
The $2.5 million philanthropic gift will be used to recruit a professor to the MIT Center for Learning and Memory, a laboratory headed by Professor Susumu Tonegawa, a Nobel laureate.
Speaking at a luncheon at the home of MIT President and Mrs. Charles M. Vest, Menicon President Kyoichi Tanaka said, "Learning and memory is a very exciting new field in brain and cognitive sciences, and I firmly believe that Dr. Tonegawa's center will make significant discoveries that will be of benefit to people around the world. This is why Menicon decided to take this unusual initiative."
Describing his company's beginnings in the early 1950s, Mr. Tanaka said he became interested in contact lenses (they were unknown in Japan) when an American serviceman's wife mentioned them while visiting the optician's shop where he was working.
Carrying out his research late at night, he made drawings of contact lenses as he imagined them to be. "Obtaining the smallest lathe available in those days, I began somehow to make small lenses" and finally had "something resembling lenses" three months after the American woman first spoke of them. He then used his own eyes to test them before producing his first contact lenses for sale in 1951.
"Thus it can probably be said that America provided the impetus for the birth of Menicon's contact lenses," he said. "With the opening of the Menicon Integrated Research Laboratory in November 1995, employing a staff of 100 researchers, I wished to commemorate the event as a research and development-based company by returning something to America. Hearing from Professor Tonegawa of the preparation for the establishment of the Center for Learning and Memory at MIT, I wished to give our support to the project, which has culminated in our visit here today."
"MIT is honored to receive this generous gift which will support a senior scientist working on the cutting edge of this expanding frontier of science," President Vest said. "We applaud the commitment of Menicon to Dr. Tonegawa and the Center for Learning and Memory."
Dr. Tonegawa, who holds the Amgen Professorship of Biology and Neuroscience and a joint appointment in the Departments of Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, said, "I am delighted to receive this gift from Menicon, a public-spirited company that recognizes that the MIT Center for Learning and Memory is addressing one of the greatest and most exciting challenges in the biological sciences today-the understanding of the human brain."
Dr. Tonegawa was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1987 for revolutionizing the understanding of the genetic basis of the immune system. His work described how genes in cells recognize and fight off foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and cancers. This helped scientists to control and manipulate the immune system and laid the foundation for a whole range of therapeutic approaches in fighting disease.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 31, 1996.