Interview with Associate Professor Toshihisa Sugino
 
Agricultural crops around the world are experiencing an increasing amount of salt damage.When Japan was struck by the Great East Japan Earthquake, an extensive amount of soil was damaged by seawater due to tsunamis. As a matter of fact, humanity has a long history of combating soil salinization.It is about time to put an end to this battle.
 
Obesity at parturition increases risks of health in dairy cows. Sugino searches for ways to protect and raise precious lactating cows.
 
  Associate Professor Sugino states that the goal of his research is to “take a nutritional physiological approach to issues that face dairy cows on farms, and contribute to resolving those issues.”

The main research theme he is focusing on at present is how to prevent dairy cows before parturition from obesity.

According to Sugino, dairy cows that are raised in Japan produce approximately 10,000 kg of raw milk per cow per year. Thus, cows need to eat a lot of feed to produce abundant milk, but they cannot eat much just after parturition, so produce milk by using body fat that they have accumulated in their body. In fresh period of dairy cows, a problem exists in that overweight cows before parturition tend to cause more frequent accidents. It is a large requirement on dairy farms to prevent dairy cows from obesity before parturition.
 
According to Associate Professor Sugino, the present typical feeding management of lactating cows is to keep approximately 60 to 100 cows together in a group and control them with the same feed. The amount of feed is set slightly higher than appropriate for dairy cows with average milk yield. Therefore, cows that produce less milk than average yield more weight while fed the same type of diet, increasing the risk of accidents around parturition.

Sugino conducts research mainly in three aspects of this problem. The first study is the relationship between dietary nutrients and ghrelin, secreted from gastrointestinal tract that promotes the secretion of growth hormone and appetite. The second is about energy intake control during the dry period (before parturition). By efficiently using these approaches, Sugino aims to develop a technique to control milk production while preventing cows from obesity.
 
 
Clarifying the effective administration of a substance that increases milk production while preventing obesity
 
  Sugino has continued with research of ghrelin from his student days.

“Ghrelin is secreted from the gastrointestinal tract, and promotes growth hormone secretion. Ghrelin was discovered by Japanese researchers at the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Center when I was a student,” says Sugino. His then supervisor had a connection for joint research with the researchers who made this discovery, and Sugino decided to study this substance.

In the United States, bST, a recombinant bovine growth hormone, is injected into dairy cows. This technique cannot be done in Japan from the food safety. Therefore, Sugino has continuously pursued a method of stimulating ghrelin with some dietary nutrients (i.e. stimulating the secretion of ghrelin from the gastrointestinal tract through the fed diet), and then induce ghrelin effects to promote secretion of growth hormone. His research on ghrelin in a ruminant is extremely rare in the world.
 
Sugino has arrived at “medium chain fatty acid (MCFA)” as a nutrient that promotes the secretion of ghrelin. The administration of MCFA to dairy cows induces the secretion of ghrelin, which in turn promotes the secretion of growth hormone. Sugino has revealed that this process increases milk production, and conducts tests to prevent dairy cows from obesity while increasing milk production by administering MCFA during the period when cows tend to gain weight. In FY 2016, joint research will be started with the Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science and the Hokkaido Agricultural Research Center, both under the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO); and with the Toyama and Chiba prefectural governments.

As the third aspect of his research, Sugino also focuses on lysine, a type of amino acid, and its relationship with ghrelin. When dairy cows before parturition are fed with lysine, their milk production and feeding both increase after parturition. This phenomenon has been known for many years, and Sugino is conducting joint research to collect scientific evidence of this phenomenon, on a request from a well-known company.
 
 
  In the meantime, Sugino has identified one way of reducing accidents before and after parturition, without cows losing weight, by using low-energy high bulk diet before parturition, through joint research with the NARO Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science; the NARO Hokkaido Agricultural Research Center; the Chiba, Tochigi, Gunma and Toyama prefectural governments; and the National Federation of Dairy Co-operative Associations. Efforts on this aspect will be started with Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (KAKENHI) in FY 2016. Sugino is modest about his career so far and these studies, saying, “I guess I was lucky.”

While studying at the then School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science at Kitasato University, Sugino wanted to study viruses. However, the lab he wanted to join did not accept graduate school students, so he joined animal nutrition lab that had an opening. It was there that he came across research into ghrelin, and has since spent a happier researcher life than he had expected. In his third year of doctoral studies, he became an Assistant Professor at Hiroshima University, and worked in these two positions while continuing his research.

Sugino was “lucky” not only in finding these positions, but also in acquiring, through the studies, techniques to establish a measurement system by himself and measure hormone levels in blood and other fluids. Because measurement using marketed devices is expensive, Sugino’s skills are respected and relied on by many researchers.

Associate Professor Sugino undertakes rare studies and has unique techniques. What does research mean to him?
 
Doing research that is only possible in his lab, and proactively promoting the first attempts in Japan
 

  “When I think about my research goals, I always want to somehow contribute to society” . . .

Sugino is more focused on evaluation on dairy farms, rather than in the academic circles. He says that, from a global perspective, Japanese researchers know too little about actual sites.

“My co-researcher, Professor Masahito Oba, is now at the University of Alberta in Canada. He is known to almost all the dairy farmers in Japan. I model my own studies and activities after him.”

This January, Sugino held the first “Dairy Farming Technique Seminar” targeted at dairy farmers in Hiroshima University. Sugino explained his belief, saying, “I started this seminar together with Professor Oba as a forum for sharing excellent studies from overseas that focus on dairy farms. We believe that it is an important role of university faculties to share such studies with dairy farmers in an easy-to-understand way.”

He also described the characteristics of his own lab as follows:
“As the TPP process moves toward enforcement, dairy farming will assume increasing importance as an industry. There are not many institutions that provide adequate opportunities for research and education in dairy farming in Honshu, the main island of Japan, and southward, unlike Hokkaido University, Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, and other institutions in Hokkaido. Our lab is the only place in Honshu and southward that possesses milking robots and provides an opportunity for learning the many aspects of dairy farming!”

Associate Professor Sugino then concluded by emphasizing:
“Because of difficulty in importation, milk production in Japan will continue forever. This is why I strongly hope through our research to improve how dairy farms function, and to challenge what so far has been thought impossible on farms. If you are interested in such studies, come and join us.”
 
Toshihisa Sugino
Associate Professor
Laboratory of Animal Nutrition and Feeding

Since June 1, 2015 Associate Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
Since 2012 Distinguished Researcher, Hiroshima University
Apr. 1, 2008 – May 31, 2015 Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University
Oct. 4, 2004 – Nov. 3, 2004 Research Fellow, Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science, National Agriculture and Bio-oriented Research Organization
Apr. 1, 2003 – Mar. 31, 2007 Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Biosphere Science, Hiroshima University

Posted on Sep 14, 2016