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Lab Chat With Dr. Keisuke Ito

Keisuke Ito, M.D., Ph.D., studies the metabolic requirements of hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells (HSCs). In 2012 Dr. Ito was recruited to Einstein from Harvard Medical School, where he was an instructor in medicine. He is now an associate professor of cell biology and of medicine and the director of scientific resources at the Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Research at Einstein.

What is your research focus?
HSCs can either produce new HSCs or differentiate into all the body’s blood cells. I’m interested in finding the cellular mechanisms that maintain equilibrium between HSC self-renewal and differentiation—and that lead to blood cancers when defects occur. For example, we’ve found that inhibiting fatty-acid oxidation in HSCs causes them to lose the capacity to self-renew and instead to undergo differentiation. When we looked for the downstream effect of fatty-acid oxidation, we found that it induces mitophagy—the selective degradation of old or defective mitochondria.


What are the clinical implications?

We’re exploring ways of suppressing mitophagy in HSCs, which—by halting HSC self-renewal—could help in treating or even preventing blood cancers. On the other hand, strategies that encourage mitophagy could be useful for expanding the number of HSCs available for stem-cell transplants. So being able to direct the fate of HSCs could have major health benefits.


Could you talk about your background?

I was born in Tokyo and grew up in Kanagawa Prefecture, just south of Tokyo. I attended school in Tokyo, earning my M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Keio University. I came to the United States in 2006 to be a postdoctoral fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.


What do you like about working at Einstein?

Einstein has offered me an extremely supportive environment and wonderful collaborators. It has been great working with Meelad Dawlaty, Ulrich Steidl, Rajat Singh, and their colleagues in genetics, hematology, and cellular metabolism, as well as with Paul Frenette and his stem-cell group.


What do you do in your spare time?

A friend has a boat that we sail from City Island to Long Island in the summer. I also swim year-round in an indoor pool.


Anything else?

In the summer, my wife and I enjoy going to Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We’ve gone there several times to listen to Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 (the New World Symphony). We also love going to the Metropolitan Opera, particularly for Italian operas—Turandot, Aida, La Traviata.


What other music do you especially like?

It depends. Listening to Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches motivates me to work more energetically. But when I’m trying to concentrate, I really like the English composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, the “Jupiter” movement in particular.


Do you do much reading outside of the scientific literature?

I like to read books about Japanese history. I especially like reading about the era of the provincial wars. It started about 550 years ago and lasted more than 100 years, with almost constant military conflict.


Is there something that people might be surprised to know about you?

I’m not a very big guy but I loved playing rugby—in junior high school and medical school. I’m still in touch with several of my former teammates and still really like watching the sport.

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