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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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U.S., Japan Science/Technology Cooperation Utilizes, Conserves Natural Resources

by Richard Arkin, J.D., Assistant Editor
FDA Veterinarian Newsletter March / April 2008 Volume XXIII, No II

The Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine has taken a leadership role in the U.S.-Japan Coop-erative Program in Natural Resources (UJNR), a technology exchange program between the United States and Japan.

A senior official of the Center for Veterinary Medicine is highly involved in this international effort. Dr. Marleen Wekell, Director of CVM’s Office of Research (OR) in Laurel, MD, chairs the UJNR Joint Panel on Toxic Micro-Organisms. This panel examines toxic algae, bacterial pathogens and their toxins, and toxigenic fungi that contaminate food and cause human or other animal diseases. The panel also looks for ways to prevent such illnesses. She joined the UJNR panel in 1996. She became the Treasurer of the UJNR Joint Panel on Toxic Micro-Organisms in 1997 and was elected Chair in 1998.

Even before she joined the UJNR panel, Dr. Wekell, as the Director of the FDA Seafood Products Research Center in Bothell, WA, was known as an international expert on marine toxins, several species of bacterial pathogens causing food-borne illness, and development of methods for determining quality of aquatic products.

As a panel member, Dr. Wekell hosted several Japanese scientists to work in the Bothell laboratory. In addition, U.S. scientists have been able to work in their counterpart laboratories in Japan. Other U.S. panel members have also hosted Japanese scientists in their respective laboratories. This exchange of scientists, which continues to this day, has helped the United States and Japan to standardize methods for the detection of bacterial pathogens and toxins produced by bac-teria, fungi, and algae and to exchange information.

Dr. Wekell remained Chair when she left Washington State to become the Director of the FDA’s North East Regional Laboratory, New York, NY, and continued in 2003 when she joined CVM’s OR. As Chair of the UJNR panel on Toxic Mi-cro-Organisms, she has organized and chaired together with the other U.S. panel members three symposia in the United States. Each dealt with the focus of the panel, foodborne bacterial pathogens and their toxins, mycotoxins (fungal toxins), and marine toxins (including toxic dinoflagellates).

Dr. Wekell’s duties as chair include lining up speakers, securing a meeting site and hotel, and publishing the results. At present she is working with the other eight U.S. panel members from FDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to organize a similar symposium to be held November 2008 in New Orleans, LA.

In recent years, OR has played an important role in representing the United States with the UJNR panel on Toxic Mi-cro-Organisms. Several OR researchers have made presentations, and, in 2006, OR hosted a week-long visit of a Cam-pylobacter expert from Japan.

On alternate years, when the meetings are held in Japan, Dr. Wekell has chaired sessions and made presentations. At present, the UJNR panel from Japan on Toxic Micro-Organisms has nine panel members who are senior scientists from the National Institute of Health Sciences, the Department of Food Safety, the National Food Research Institute, the Fish-eries Research Institute, and the National Institute of Animal Health. All panel members include international experts on animal and human health, marine toxins, bacterial pathogens, toxigenic fungi, and food safety (both humans and other animals).

In addition to Dr. Wekell, the U.S. panel members include: Dr. Ed Cleveland, from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), New Orleans, LA; Dr. Douglas Abbott, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Athens, GA; Dr. Art Liang, CDC, Atlanta, GA; Dr. Ken Voss, ARS, Athens, GA; Dr. Chris Maragos, ARS, Peoria, IL; Dr. Mariana Miliotis, FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), College Park, MD; Dr. Jim Hungerford, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, Bothell, WA; and Dr. Morris Potter, CFSAN, Atlanta, GA.

According to Dr. Wekell, “Being a part of the UJNR has been one of the more rewarding experiences of my life. It has enabled me to work closely with other U.S. and Japanese counterparts.” She added, “Over the years, all the panel mem-bers from both countries have become not only treasured colleagues in research, but also good friends.”

The Toxic Micro-Organisms Panel members routinely exchange cultures as well as laboratory reports and various pub-lications on toxic micro-organisms. Other exchanges have included botulism toxins, methods for mycotoxin decontamina-tion in commodities, and toxin standards used in analyses. Some of the toxin standards are not sold commercially and are available only from those engaged in research on the respective toxins.

The panel’s work has led to the publication of eight books, most through the sponsorship of international symposia, on topics that have never been covered or summarized in a book or review. One of these landmark publications introduced pioneering Japanese work on the food poisoning bacterium Vibrio parahemolyticus to the international scientific commu-nity.

Through the panel’s collaborative efforts, avian. botulism has been identified as the cause of epidemic wild waterfowl poisoning in Japan. Japanese manufacturing processes incorporated into U.S. businesses have increased production ef-ficiency. Also, the panel’s efforts have contributed to the identification of seafood poisonings previously unknown to U.S. researchers and the development of bacteria tolerance regulations for use in U.S. and Japanese meat and poultry industries. Through the panel, U.S. scientists have supplied information on the genetics of peanuts and peanut processing methods to Japanese scientists working on development of a peanut that is genetically resistant to toxic fungi.

A Typical Micro-Organism Symposium

A meeting hosted by CVM and CFSAN in November 2006 was typical of Panel symposia. Dr. Wekell served as meet-ing chair and program coordinator for this “10th International Symposium on Toxic Micro-Organisms: Meeting the Chal-lenges of Toxic Micro-Organisms and Pathogens: Implications for Food Safety and Public Health.”

Attendees were welcomed to the symposium by Dr. Wekell, who chaired several sessions, along with then-CVM Direc-tor Dr. Stephen Sundlof, then-CFSAN Director Dr. Robert Brackett, and USDA Agricultural Research Service National Program Leader Dr. Jane Robens. A business pre-meeting took place the day before the science and technology ses-sions.

Sessions at this meeting included presentations and discussions of food safety policy and public health, data thresholds for regulatory or public health response, responses to indications of pathogens in products when there is no evidence of human illness, epidemiology of foodborne disease and in microbial risk assessment, and risk assessment for policy mak-ing. Other presentations and discussion included discussions of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), development of standardized methods for testing antimicrobial resistance, marine and freshwater toxins and seafood toxin outbreaks, pathogen detection, and other laboratory methods.

A session at this meeting co-chaired by Dr. Wekell focused on microbial resistance. OR scientist Dr. David White gave a presentation on NARMS, and OR scientist Dr. Patrick McDermott presented on the development of standardized meth-ods for testing antimicrobial resistance.

The meeting also included “Poster Session” presentations, covering shorter and more specific research efforts of the type usually presented in peer-reviewed poster form.

The proceedings of this Symposium will soon be published in the Journal of Food Additives and Contaminants as part of a dedicated issue later this year.

Origins of UJNR

The UJNR emerged from a proposal offered by the United States during the third meeting of the U.S-Japan Bilateral Committee on Trade and Economic Affairs in January 1964. The U.S. proposal was for structured “government-level ex-changes of technology specialists and research results in the area of human and natural resources that would benefit both countries.” The result was a cabinet level agreement to facilitate cooperative efforts and equitable technology exchange in the field of natural resources.

The first meeting of the UJNR took place in May 1964 with the participants’ stated purpose of “utilizing cooperation be-tween Japan and the United States, so that both countries can learn from each other to the maximum extent possible the means of effectively utilizing and conserving the world’s natural resources and solving problems in human housing envi-ronments.”

The UJNR, which now functions within the framework of the 1989 U.S.-Japan Agreement in Science and Technology, has enhanced the efficiency of natural resources development and conservation. The UJNR has fostered exploration and adoption of diverse ideas, and has broadened understanding of important scientific issues in both countries. Through this spirit of scientific collaboration, the United States and Japan have made significant progress in understanding natural processes and promoting sound management of natural resources.

The UJNR also acts as a mechanism for implementing policies set forth by the 1993 U.S.-Japan Common Agenda and the U.S.-Japan Science and Technology Agreement.

The United States and Japan agreed to the Common Agenda (Common Agenda for Cooperation in Global Perspective) as a framework for bilateral cooperation, focusing the resources and technical expertise of the world’s two largest econo-mies on global challenges. The UJNR has played a key role in two of the four pillars of the Common Agenda: Protecting the Global Environment and Advancing Science and Technology. (The other two are Promoting Health & Human Devel-opment and Responding to Challenges to Global Stability.) The Common Agenda has resulted in creation of more than 80 scientific cooperation projects and projects involving cooperative development assistance.

The U.S.-Japan Science and Technology Agreement, which goes back to 1988, offers a similar opportunity for the ex-change of scientific ideas, data, and studies.

The UJNR is one of four research exchanges between the United States and Japan. The other three exchanges cover basic science, health/medical affairs, and social/cultural affairs.

UJNR Panels

At present, the UJNR consists of 18 “panels” (committees). Of these, nine deal with marine science and technology.

They are:

  • Marine Facilities
  • Diving Physiology
  • Sea Bottom Surveys
  • Marine Geology
  • Marine Mining
  • Aquaculture
  • Pacific Observation and Research
  • Submersible Research

Marine Environmental Science and Technology.
The remaining nine are terrestrial or non-marine panels. They are:

  • Conservation, Recreation, and Parks
  • Earthquake Prediction Technology
  • Fire Research and Safety
  • Forage Seed Prediction
  • Forestry
  • Mycoplasmosis
  • Protein Resources
  • Toxic Microorganisms
  • Wind and Seismic Effects.

Each UNJR panel meets as needed, usually once a year, at sites alternating between the United States and Japan. The meetings are primarily for presentation and discussion of research topics, but business sessions at the meetings also evaluate activities and determine if changes are needed.

The U.S. and Japanese governments have primary responsibility for UJNR planning, organization, and control. How-ever, nongovernmental organizations and individuals are often invited to participate as consultants or advisors at panel symposia. Research results are disseminated through professional journals, panel proceedings, technical reports, press releases, presentations, and other media.

In Japan, all UJNR panels are coordinated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science, and Technology, with participation and advice primarily from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, For-estry, and Fisheries; the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts, and Telecommunications; the Land, Infra-structure, and Transport Ministry; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Environmental Agency. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC, also play vital roles in program coordination and implementation.

In the United States, the overall UJNR is coordinated by the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce coordinate the committee’s marine panels under the Marine Resources and Engineering Coordination Com-mittee. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) coordinates the non-marine panels of the UJNR. The U.S. Depart-ments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation also partici-pate extensively in the program.