Celebrating Utako Okamoto: a pioneer of science and inventor of tranexamic acid

On 21 April, we mark the eight-year anniversary of the passing of Utako Okamoto, a Japanese medical doctor who discovered tranexamic acid in the 1950s in her quest to find a drug that would treat bleeding after childbirth known as postpartum haemorrhage. 

While Japan struggled to recover from the devastation of World War II, husband and wife researchers, Utako and Shosuke Okamoto, were making medical history. Working on blood drawn from their own veins, they identified a powerful inhibitor of blood clot breakdown – a process called fibrinolysis.

But the full potential of their brainchild – the drug tranexamic acid, or TXA – would not be recognised for decades. 

After publishing their scientific results in 1962, Utako became a chair at Kobe Gakuin University, where she worked from 1966 until her retirement in 1990. Okamoto’s career was hampered by a very male-dominated environment.

During her lifetime she was unable to persuade obstetricians at Kobe to trial the antifibrinolytic agent, which had become a drug on the WHO list of essential medicines in 2009.  

She lived to see the 2010 beginning of the WOMAN Trial of tranexamic acid in 20,000 women with postpartum haemorrhage, but died before its completion in 2016.  

Shortly before her death, she shared that the motivation behind her and Shosuke’s work was “to discover new drugs to show our gratitude to humanity”.