Chemist and entrepreneur Jokichi Takamine was a biotechnology pioneer whose research led to the use of adrenaline in medicine. Also known as epinephrine, adrenaline is widely used for many applications, including the treatment of anaphylaxis and cardiac arrest.
Takamine was born in Takaoka, Japan, in 1854. His father was a doctor and his mother came from a family of sake makers. After earning a degree in applied chemistry from the University of Tokyo in 1879, Takamine completed his postgraduate studies in Scotland, at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde. He later received doctorates in chemical engineering in 1899 and pharmacology in 1906 from the University of Tokyo.
In 1887, Takamine co-founded Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Co., Japan’s first chemical fertilizer manufacturer, which is now known as Nissan Chemical Corp. Around this same time, he developed a process to brew whisky using koji mold. Inspired by sake manufacturing, this approach yields a more enzymatically active substitute for barley malt in whisky brewing, promoting faster fermentation and resulting in a more affordable whisky. Takamine moved to the U.S. in 1890 and began working for a distillery in Peoria, Illinois, where he applied his koji mold process to making whisky, but he left the whisky business a few years later.
As Takamine discovered that the koji mold enzyme could aid the digestion of starch, he developed the digestive supplement Taka-Diastase. Patented in 1894, it was perhaps the world’s first patent on a microbial enzyme, as well as the first commercially produced microbial enzyme in the U.S.
Takamine licensed his patented Taka-Diastase enzyme preparation to Parke-Davis & Co. The company aggressively marketed Taka-Diastase for treating indigestion, and the product was extremely successful. Parke-Davis retained Takamine as a consultant.
With his profits, Takamine started a lab in Manhattan, where he began researching adrenal gland secretions at the suggestion of Parke-Davis. In 1900, a chemist under his direction, Keizo Uenaka, successfully crystalized an adrenal gland secretion product from sheep glands and Takamine named it "adrenalin.” He obtained a trademark and filed patent applications covering the isolation and crystallization processes. Five patents were granted in 1903.
Today, adrenaline is used to treat heart and respiratory problems including life-threatening allergic reactions. A widely used medical device containing adrenaline is the EpiPen® autoinjector. In surgery, adrenaline is combined with the local anesthetic lidocaine to reduce blood loss and to extend the duration of action.
Leveraging his success to make a social impact, Takamine found many meaningful opportunities to promote Japanese culture. In 1905 in New York City, he established the Nippon Club as a social club for Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals. In 1912, he supported efforts to beautify the tidal basin area around the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., by arranging for the shipment of several thousand cherry trees. After more than a century, these trees remain well-known symbols of friendship between Japan and the U.S.
In 1913, Takamine joined Sankyo Pharmaceutical Co., now Daiichi-Sankyo, where he was named the company’s first president. He held over 20 U.S. patents, and his honors include the 1912 Imperial Academy Prize awarded by the Japan Academy.