Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Institute for Public Health and Medicine

Global Cardiovascular Research at Northwestern: Interview with Masaru Sakarai

March 4, 2013Masaru Sakarai and his son at Wrigley Field

Dr. Masaru Sakurai is a visiting associate professor from Kanazawa Medical University’s Department of Public Health and Epidemiology in Japan as a Rose and Jeremiah Stamler fellow. He has been working in the Department of Preventive Medicine since June 2012 on several projects related to cardiometabolic epidemiology during his sabbatical. Mark Huffman sat down with Dr. Sakurai to learn more about his background, his past and current research, and his time at Northwestern and the US.

Can you tell me about your background and your prior training?

I have training in internal medicine and endocrinology with a particular emphasis on diabetes and thyroid disease. After ten years of clinical training, I joined the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Kanazawa Medical University under the leadership of Dr. Hideaki Nakagawa. There I began working on a Japan factory workplace cohort study of approximately 7,000 healthy research participants who have been followed for 20 years.

What sort of projects have you worked on in the past?

I am interested in the incidence of diabetes and the lifestyle and nutritional factors that contribute to diabetes. I continue to write about the associations between nutrition and diabetes using data from this cohort. For example, I am working on analyses that explore the associations between diet soda, carbohydrate, and fat intake and the incidence of diabetes in healthy people.

Low carbohydrate diets are currently popular in Japan, and we are finding that low carbohydrate diets are associated with lower risk of incident diabetes.

Over the past year, I have also been collaborating with Shiga University of Medical Science and their Nippon DATA90 database of 7,200 research participants followed for more than 15 years to analyze the association between hemoglobin A1c and all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality.

How did you get linked up with Northwestern?

I became involved through Kanazawa's participation in the INTERMAP study (observational study in Japan, China, UK, and US that explores the associations between dietary factors and blood pressure and led by Northwestern emeritus professor, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler). Kanazawa is one of the centers in INTERMAP.

How did you come to Northwestern?

Dr. Katsuyuki Mira from Shiga University, who is a former associated professor of Kanazawa, recommended me to come to Northwestern with the support of Dr. Stamler. About ten years ago, Dr. Mira stayed here for about two years, and he has always said, "Go to Northwestern!" but about one or two years before I came, he contacted Dr. Stamler and Dr. Liu.

What did you hope to gain?

I was interested in more analyses of the INTERMAP study. I am also interested in working with other cohort studies within the Department of Preventive Medicine—how to conduct them, how to analyze them, etc.

What have you learned in the Department and how have you learned that?

I have learned about the conduct of cohort studies; how to follow-up participants, and things like that. I attend regular departmental seminars and meetings, including with faculty such as Dr. Mercedes Carnethon.

What are you working on right now?

One project I am working on looks at the association between starchy food — rice, bread, pasta — and blood pressure in the INTERMAP database.

Can you tell me anything about the findings?

It seems as though rice has an inverse association with blood pressure, whereas bread and pasta have weak or no associations.

Interesting, what else?

Using the Nippon database, I am looking at the association between weight gain after smoking cessation and incidence of diabetes.

What has been the best part of coming to Northwestern?

There are many new things that I have learned during my time. Due to the freedom that I have from my other responsibilities being away from Kanazawa (and a much shorter commute), I have more time to write each day.

What if a Northwestern fellow wanted to work in Japan—might that be possible?

Yes, we have visitors from Thailand, Vietnam, and many other countries. They come for a few months or a year and are funded by their home institutions.

What if one doesn't speak Japanese?

We speak English at work, so it's not a problem.

Where are you living here in Chicago?

Very near from here on Ohio Street in Streeterville, just a few blocks away from the office.

How do you like it?

It's very comfortable!

Where were you born?

In Nagano, it's also one of the coldest cities in Japan (like Chicago). The Winter Olympics were held there in 1998.

Do you participate in winter sports?

Yes, about three weeks ago, I went skiing in Colorado. Very good!

Have you traveled any place else in the U.S.?

In the summer, we went to Yellowstone. It's also very beautiful. We saw many wild animals — my son liked it very much.

Where else do you want to travel inside the U.S.?

I will go to New Orleans in a couple of months for the American Heart Association Epidemiology and Prevention conference.

Can you tell me a little bit about Kanazawa?

Sure, Kanazawa is famous for seafood, especially in the winter season. Kanazawa is also one of the coldest cities in Japan.

What are some of the things you have done in Chicago?

There are so many Japanese players in Major League Baseball, and I have had the chance to see some of them.

Masaru Sakarai skiing with his family

Are you a baseball fan?


Which teams do you like?

The Cubs! The Cubs just signed a Japanese pitcher, Kyuji Fujikawa, for this next year.

Have you been to Wrigley Field?

Yes, two or three times. I am also a member of the Art Institute and the Field Museum as well. We have been there many times.

Can you tell me about your family?

My wife and five year-old son came with me.

Have you hosted any visitors?

My sister, brother, my parents and my wife's family have all visited us here in Chicago.

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