[Media Coverage] Young Investigators’ Stem Cell Symposium, Singapore


Young researchers from the Singapore Stem Cell Society organized the second Young Investigators’ Stem cell Symposium (YIS) on June 8th at Biopolis, Singapore. The Symposium was organized with the intention of giving young investigators, a unique opportunity to develop their networks and establish collaborations with peers, scientists, clinicians and the industry – early in their career.

The Guest-of-Honour was Prof. Birgitte Lane, Executive director of the Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) and an internationally renowned scientist who has worked on keratins and epidermal differentiation and disease.

The Keynote Lecture was delivered by Dr. Martin Pera, Professor of Stem Cell Sciences from the University of Melbourne, Australia who spoke on regulation of self-renewal and pluripotency in human embryonic stem cells. Professor Martin Pera is the Program Leader of Stem Cells Australia and was among a small number of researchers who pioneered the isolation and characterisation of pluripotent stem cells from human germ cell tumours of the testis; work that provided an important framework for the development of human embryonic stem cells. He is a member of the Steering Group of the International Stem Cell Initiative and provides extensive advice to state, national and international regulatory authorities on the scientific background to Human ES cell research.

His talk was followed by an exciting series of short “fire talks” by PhD students and research officers who were allowed to present their ideas in an informal setting to promote curiosity and open debate on stem cell topics.

The event was split into four sessions, covering varied topics such as Pluripotent stem cells (session 1), Directed differentiation (session 2), Regenerative medicine (session 3) and ended with two Panel discussions (session 4). The day concluded with a social networking event with drinks and refreshments.

Session 1 kicked off with an excellent talk by Dr. Takanori Takebe, Associate Professor of Regenerative and Advertising Medicine from the Yokohama City University, Japan. He truly epitomized the Young investigator title, as his appointment as Associate professor at the age of 26, makes him one of the youngest faculty members ever in Japan.

In the talk, he stressed upon the necessity to develop alternative approaches to save transplant patients who are dying, due to a critical shortage of donor organs like livers for treatment of end-stage organ failure. His lab has recently shown that specified hepatic cells self-organized into three-dimensional organ buds in a dish when they were co-cultivated with stromal cell populations, human endothelial and mesenchymal progenitors leading to formation of a rudimentary ‘liver bud’.

They demonstrated that transplanting these in-vitro grown organ buds into an immunodeficient animal led to formation of functional liver tissues and generation of a three-dimensional, vascularized organ. Thus, he spoke about how manipulation of autologous iPSCs holds great promise for regenerative medicine.

Dr. Victoria Cowling from the College of Life Sciences, Univeristy of Dundee, UK spoke in the afternoon session about regulation of mRNA capping in stem cell pluripotency and differentiation. Her lab works on how modification of mRNA by the addition of methylated “cap” structure is regulated during stem cell differentiation and T cell activation, and the impact this has on gene expression. Post-doctoral researchers from Genome Institute of Singapore, IMCB and LKC School of Medicine presented their work too.

The penultimate session began with Dr. Christine Cheung from IMCB, A*STAR, Singapore who spoke about using iPSCs to develop organ-specific vascular subtypes which would help create relevant and informative cellular models to understand disease conditions such as heart disease, stroke and dementia.

Numerous young investigators, post-doctoral research fellows, PhD students and research officers from various research Institutes in Singapore including A*STAR were present for the event.

Panel Discussion 1:

The first panel discussion was on “Stem cells of the future: What next?” which was chaired by Jonathan Loh, and the panelists included Dr. Martin Pera, Dr. Victoria Cowling and Dr. Takanori Takebe.

Some of the questions which they addressed were how to maintain stem cells in an artificial environment and about the upcoming trend of in vivo programming of stem cells using body as a bioreactor. The future of biomarkers in stem cell research and the possibility of using stem cells for drug testing applications were also deliberated upon. The Q&A session provided very valuable insights about the practices and government policies followed in the panelists’ respective countries- Japan, UK and Australia.

 Q&A : What are the ethical implications of the research you do?

Dr. Takanori Takebe: It is a very difficult question. It depends on the target diseases of interest. We are targetting diseases which are untreatable whose only hope is regenerative medicine or new type of treatments. And in that sense, our approach could be fully justified. Especially in paediatric disorders and kidney transplant patients, Parkinsons disease. It depends on the diseases and the condition of the patients.

Dr. Martin Pera: Generally the whole landscape around ethical discussions has changed radically. 10 years ago it was dominated by the use of embryos in research, now we spend a lot of our time around patient expectations and try not to promise too much while getting the real hope that exists, across. We spend a lot of our time trying to bring under control, clinicians who are offering phoney stem cell treatments and one of the lessons we have learnt is that- Public cannot discriminate between legitimate clinical trials, and stuff that has no scientific basis. There is a huge outreach to manage this situation.

I think there will be a lot of ethical issues relating to making gametes from stem cells. No body worries about making a liver; but if you talk about making a brain or a gonad, then they get worried. Also the whole new technology of gene editing is going to create a huge discussion.

Q&A : Is there any political discussion happening in any country of the world to make policies to support the use of stem cells to cure diseases.

Dr. Victoria Cowling – I think there are lots of discussions going on in different research councils of the world especially with regards to genome editing and I presume there are going to be country-specific solutions. Lot of difficult decisions are to be made and in many cases the people making those decision may not be best-qualified to do so.

Q&A : Speaking about Genome editing using CRISPR, a group in China did genetic engineering of embryos, what are the implications of that. This could be quite an ethical issue down the line and how do u think this can be controlled.

Dr. Victoria Cowling: I guess you can’t control it. If a certain country wants to do it and their government and their research council equivalent doesn’t want to stop them, then this will happen.

Dr. Martin Pera: For now, I support a moratorium on this issue at the moment. If for no other reason, there are still bugs in the technology we have to address, like for eg. if you look at the chinese study- there were off-target effects. I don’t have any problem with people attempting these techniques on embryos in vitro, as long as it is done with the consent of the patients.

Q&A: Is the solution to engage public while making discussions.

Dr. Victoria Cowling: Yes, absolutely. Like the Mitochondrial replacement therapy for IVF which was legalized in the UK, a lot of discussion from various strata of the society is necessary before taking any action.

Dr. Martin Pera: The very important lesson from the IVF study is Britain has exemplary legislation rules because they did exactly that. They had very high level of discussions before the leglistlation and it wasn’t rushed. The science had to develop and public needed to get used to the idea. So it is very important to engage with the public especially wrt gene editing technology, while making gametes from ES or iPSCs; early on, so that they are not taken unawares.

Q&A: What we are seeing around the world now is funding for research is getting tighter and more stringent. How can you involve the private sector industry with the research. Where do you think you might be able to get traction with companies wrt stem cell research.

Dr. Takanori Takebe: Japan has a couple of advantages in terms of outleting commercial interest for regenerative medicine applications. Japan has very unique funding systems, in terms of public funding. They have a centralized system. So for Kyoto university, they are making induced pluripotent stem cell stock; as for the liver research, our university is doing that. So In that sense, the government allows a centre for each disease applications and that enables the commercial interests to find the best partnership for specific disease applications.

Panel Discussion 2:

The second panel discussion was on Academia Vs Industry: What’s your Choice? It was chaired by Jonathan Loh and the panelists included Russell Hewitt (President, A*STAR Postdoc and Early Career Scientist Society), Rosemary Tan (CEO, Veredeus Laboratories) and Kim Raineri (Business Director, Lonza).

As expected from such populist topics, it was a very interactive session, with the graduates seeking guidance from the panelists. Here is a snippet of the Q & A session, which ensued.

Q&A: What are the requirements to get into industry?

Dr. Russell Hewitt : For those who are PhDs, we have spent many years training, so we learn a lot of skills and its more than just science we do. There are a lot of transferrable skills like scientific writing, giving presentations, which are very useful.

Dr. Rosemary Tan : I can think of three things: The first thing is, you really have to multi-task. You can’t just be a scientist if you want to start a company. You need to be a salesman, a coffee maker and secondly, you really need to think out-of-the-box. The third thing, is to rethink of all your connections. What all things you can do to reconnect with the groups of people you worked with, that would help you in business.

Mr. Kim Raineri : Technical knowledge is very important. Networking ability along with good scientific writing and presentations skills are important regardless of whether you are in academia or industry.

Q&A: One thing we have heard through the years from companies is there is a discrepancy between whether a company will hire people as new graduates, or new postdocs or they want postdocs with some experience. What do you prefer?

Mr. Kim Raineri : Depends on the position available. Also a lot depends on what the academic profile of the candidate looks like and we try to match the position available accordingly.

Dr. Rosemary Tan : We are looking for people with the right mindset. For us, mindset is more important than the experience. Also, we are looking for people who are acquainted with the latest technologies, as Science is evolving rapidly. Industry is not so fast in catching up, which is where young PhDs can really contribute, due to the current knowledge they possess.

Q&A: A study was published recently which claimed, “We are training more PhDs than required” and since there are a lot of PhDs here, we are getting paranoid about that. With the world governments cutting down on funding for research and economies shrinking, What is your opinion about the future of PhD holders?

 Dr. Russell Hewitt : It does seem that way. You’ve got to be aware that there are many many tracks that PhDs can adopt in their careers, its not just the PI position. Of course, industry is another big employer for PhDs, but then, there are other areas too. Yes, there is an oversupply, but there is also the potential to still easily find employment, if you just think a little out-of-the-box and maybe try to explore some other skills which could put you into a career path that you may have immediately not thought of.

Q&A: I didn’t spend four years to go to another field. Getting a PhD is hard enough.

Mr. Kim Raineri : Its all about supply and demand. If it’s research you are interested in, there is limited positions available and so is the case with industry.

Its for the individual to decide where they want to go into and you need to be innovative. Try to discover new paths and create new paths for yourself.

Dr. Rosemary Tan : I think PhD opens a door. You need to be daring and adventurous if you want to do something different.


Q&A: What is the difference between me a PhD and a bachelors, as an employer?

Dr. Rosemary Tan : I like to work with PhDs, as they are very determined and can complete a job in 3hrs as opposed to 6hrs, but that doesn’t mean Bachelors students are less focused – it depends on the person. PhD’s have gone through a lot of training. But one thing, I wish to see improvements in my PhD employees is I would like my scientists to think more like engineers. I want them to think about why things fail, and about statistical significance .

The one big motivation for anyone to go into industry is the love for success. The love for success must be very strong. It is about how much money you can bring into the company and how much your products will make an impact and how successful your idea will be. These are the hallmarks of good scientists who have joined industry.

Q&A: For those of you, who made the switch from research to industry, what are the things you like in industry compared to academia and what do you miss in academia.

Dr. Rosemary Tan : I think being in industry – I am a little more in control of the decisions I make, but that is scary because the decisions I take may be wrong. But that is a responsibility I have to take. I miss not worrying about funding, because when you are a scientist you do not really worry about paycheck (laughs).

Q&A: What are the challenges you faced as a woman scientist?

Dr. Rosemary Tan : Really a good question, but I hate the question (laughs). Being a woman really doesn’t make it harder or easier. There is really not much of a difference. But there were a a lot of times I used to feel, it would be different if I were a man. If you want to have a family, and it is entirely up to you, whether you want or not. But if you have a family, being a mother is really tough. You really have to understand that you made a choice, and it’s a choice you make. You may need to take tough decisions.

In conclusion, the Panel discussion was summarized well by Dr. Russell Hewitt – Whether you are in Industry or Academia, you know best what you are looking for. Its often a journey of self-discovery but seek your opportunities. Make yourself available for new directions. If there are certain areas which could make you stand out from other people, look into that. Become the go-to- guy! That can often open up new doors for you. Essentially, take more control of your career progression.

Some of the pictures taken during the YIS symposium-