Trail-blazing biomedical research facility turns 30

IMCB executive director Hong Wanjin (standing) with two of the institute’s researchers – Professor Byrappa Venkatesh, who was involved in a prestigious project to sequence the fish genome to understand evolution, and Dr Shao Huilin, a junior investigator who has been given the liberty to run her own research projects.

Biologist Hong Wanjin uprooted his family from the United States in 1989 and moved here, convinced that Singapore's then four-year-old Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) held promise.

He had heard that high-profile scientists such as Professor Sydney Brenner, now a Nobel laureate, were starting to do good work at the institute. A $25 million budget also meant that it could build labs with state-of-the-art equipment.

"I was convinced that IMCB had the necessary infrastructure for anyone to succeed if he worked hard," said Prof Hong, 55, who had just graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo then. So, he persuaded his wife to postpone her doctoral studies in the US to make the move with him.

Singapore was then a scientific backwater, and IMCB, perched on Kent Ridge, was fondly called the "blue fish tank" because of its glassy cobalt exterior.

Prof Hong's gamble paid off.

Today, the Republic has been transformed into a thriving research centre, with IMCB as one of its leading lights.

The country's oldest biomedical research facility, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has had a good run so far. It has trained more than 250 PhD students and published over 2,000 research papers in top international journals, with Prof Hong leading the way as its current executive director.

The institute has its roots in 1983, when Prof Brenner, then the director of the UK Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, was invited to give a lecture here under the Lee Kuan Yew Distinguished Visitors Programme. He proposed setting up IMCB to develop Singapore's biotech research capability.

Then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was enthusiastic about the idea. But Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore's Prime Minister, was sceptical.

When Mr Lee questioned the value of such an expensive investment, Prof Brenner replied: "Prime Minister, if you choose to continue on this path, you will remain a nation of technicians."

The institute, which was launched in 1985 and officially opened its first building in 1987, grew under the leadership of renowned researcher Chris Tan, whom Dr Goh had poached from Canada's University of Calgary to be its first executive director. Dr Louis Lim, a pioneering member of Singapore's biotech scene, also helped attract talent.

IMCB has been a training ground for many of today's local and international biomedical leaders, such as Dr Ng Huck Hui, executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, and Dr Li Peng, vice-dean of the School of Life Sciences at China's Tsinghua University.

Researchers from IMCB have stepped up when it mattered most, developing a life-saving Sars kit in record time, for instance, so hospitals here could use it to detect patients with the virus quickly during the 2003 outbreak.

With other outfits here, like the National Cancer Centre Singapore and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, also making their mark, the time is ripe to work with them on the issues critical to the country, said Prof Hong.

This includes cancer and metabolic disorders such as diabetes and obesity. IMCB has more than 20 international tie-ups and at least 13 local ones to better diagnose, treat and perhaps even cure such conditions. It also has multiple collaborations with commercial giants like GlaxoSmithKline and Johnson & Johnson to develop products.

Prof Hong, who was born in China but became a Singapore citizen in 1992, noted: "Knowing a thing or two about how these common diseases work brings hope for better treatments." To get results faster, the institute will move more research downstream, he revealed.

Currently, IMCB's work is 70 per cent basic research and 30 per cent translational research.

Basic research involves identifying key proteins and understanding how diseases work on a molecular level so as to develop effective drugs. Such efforts will continue to be important, but they can take decades to show results.

So more resources will go into translational research - to translate discoveries into diagnostics and treatments for patients.

Over the years, the institute has also reshaped itself into a leaner, more nimble animal.

In the early days, when Singapore was building its foundations as a research hub, generous funding was needed to attract top international scientists as mentors and put Singapore on the map.

"Now that we have built up a critical mass, it's time to find a strategy to consolidate," he noted.

In the past four years since he became executive director, Prof Hong has reined in those who had become used to huge budgets and the freedom to do whatever they chose. "Previously, the attitude was, 'Give me money and let me play around,'" he said.

Nowadays, they have to compete for funding, and IMCB is relying more on a hungry, driven pool of junior researchers. In 2011, it created an IMCB Junior Investigator Programme to give outstanding young researchers opportunities to run their own programmes.

One of them, Dr Shao Huilin, a junior investigator in clinical diagnostics, said: "The programme gives me independence, support and resources to grow my own research group.

"It's a precious opportunity not everyone gets," said the graduate of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Said Prof Hong: "It's part of rejuvenation. We need to nurture young talent who will take Singapore science to the next level in the next 10 years."

Looking ahead, Prof Brenner, now an A*Star senior fellow, told The Sunday Times he hopes that researchers can rely less on mice and do experiments on lab-cultured human cells instead.

"Research has been traditionally done on mice, but mice are no longer the best model for people."

Now, scientists are able to convert human cells taken from skin, for instance, into special "pluripotent cells" that can transform into human muscle, liver and nerve cells, he explained. "The brain should receive some attention as part of this project. We need to work out how different brain nerve cell types are determined and how they are connected."

Indeed, the institute has begun relying less on mice and focusing more efforts on these pluripotent stem cells, said Prof Hong.

Added Prof Brenner: "Some may say that science is an expensive endeavour. But IMCB, as a pioneering biomedical institute in Singapore, is proof that a little investment goes a long way.

"Of course, science is expensive. It is always too expensive; so are fighter jets. But science is also very beneficial. It has given us new discoveries, cures to diseases and, more importantly, advanced the way we live."

This article was first published on May 10, 2015.
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